CAIRO — Saudi Arabia is defending its decision to execute 14 minority Shiites — whose verdicts sparked criticism in the United States and Europe — declaring in a rare public statement that their trials were conducted fairly.
The men were arrested for their involvement in demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 during the Arab Spring revolts and were later sentenced to death in a secretive counterterrorism court, according to human rights activists and the men’s relatives, who also say that some of the men were tortured and forced into making false confessions.
The group included a teenager who was arrested at the airport before boarding a flight to visit a university in Michigan, and a youth who is half-deaf and nearly blind, activists said.
Shiites in the Sunni-majority kingdom have long complained of discrimination and harassment by authorities.
Last month, the kingdom’s highest court upheld the death sentences, clearing the way for the executions to take place any day now.
A spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Justice, Mansour al-Ghafari, said in a statement released Friday that the trials met international standards for fairness and due process and that the “defendants enjoy full legal rights.” All of them had access to lawyers and all court hearings were in the presence of the media and human rights observers, Ghafari said.
In a response Saturday, a prominent human rights group said the Saudi government’s statement made several false claims and was “at odds with assessments by the U.N. and rights groups.”
“Saudi Arabia’s attempts to justify these 14 unlawful executions are appalling,” said Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, an advocacy group based in Britain. “This statement is a serious mischaracterization of the trial process against the 14 men.”
At least one defendant was never permitted to see a lawyer, and in another defendant’s case, no evidence against him was presented at trial, said Reprieve.
Officials with the United Nations last year said the secretive counterterrorism court “raises serious concerns about its lack of independence and due procedure.” Its judges, they said, often refused to act on claims by defendants that “they had been subjected to torture.”
Ghafari said the death sentences were handed down only “for the most dangerous crimes.” Saudi officials in state media have claimed that the 14 men were arrested on terrorism-related charges. But activists say the Saudi government continues to conduct executions for alleged nonviolent crimes.
Some of the 14 men were convicted of using cellphones to organize protests and of using social media, according to Reprieve.
“Governments close to Saudi Arabia — including the Trump administration and the U.K. — must urgently call on the Kingdom to halt these executions,” Foa said.
Sheikha Aldosary in Riyadh contributed to this report.