It was the largest mass execution in Saudi Arabia since early 2016, when 47 people were put to death, also on terror-related charges. The vast majority of those executed on Tuesday were members of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslim minority, according to Shiite activists.
Those put to death included at least three people who were minors at the time of their alleged crimes and confessed to prosecutors’ charges under torture, according to Reprieve, which said it provided assistance to five of the people executed.
Saudi Arabia generally beheads prisoners condemned to death, in ceremonies performed by executioners using a sword — a punishment in line with the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islamic law.
The Saudi interior ministry said the people executed were all Saudi nationals convicted on charges that included adopting extremist ideology, forming terror cells and attacking security headquarters. The executions came just days after Saudi authorities said members of the Islamic State, a Sunni militant group, had attacked a security headquarters north of Riyadh, the capital.
The beheadings also occurred at a moment of spiking tensions between Saudi Arabia and its principal rival, the Shiite-led government of Iran. The Saudi leadership, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has sought to counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East by opposing militant groups allied with Tehran and cracking down on Shiite dissidents at home as well as in neighboring countries like Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia’s prosecution of Shiites, who have complained of discrimination in the kingdom, has aggravated the rivalry. In 2016, when Saudi authorities executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken Shiite cleric, Iranian leaders condemned the execution and protesters in Tehran sacked the Saudi embassy. Almost immediately, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran.
Saudi Arabia is among the countries that apply the death penalty most frequently, according to human rights groups. Most often the sentences are given to people convicted of drug-related offenses. The use of capital punishment in terrorism-related cases is more unusual and has been criticized by human rights advocates because trials are conducted by secret, specialized courts.
Maya Foa, the director of Reprieve, said the executions on Tuesday, after convictions in the specialized terrorism court, were a “horrifying show of impunity by the Saudi government” and a “staggering violation of international law.”
Mujtabaa al-Sweikat, one of the people executed on Tuesday, was arrested at an airport in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province in December 2012 as he was preparing to leave the country for a college visit to Western Michigan University, the group said. He was 17 at the time.
He was charged with disobeying the Saudi monarch, attacking security forces and other offenses, according to Reprieve. The group said he was tortured in prison, denied access to a lawyer during interrogations and forced to sign a confession admitting prosecutor’s charges, including attending protests.