Saudi Arabia Executes 81 People in Largest Mass Execution in Modern History


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Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior announced that 81 individuals were executed on Saturday in the country’s largest mass execution in decades.

Human rights groups have widely condemned the executions, which follow Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s promises to reform the country’s criminal legal system and limit its use of capital punishment. Earlier this month, the crown prince reportedly told The Atlantic that a “high percentage” of executions had been avoided through settlements with victims’ families.

“Just last week the Crown Prince told journalists he plans to modernise Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system,” London-based advocacy group Reprieve tweeted on Saturday, “only to order the largest mass execution in the country’s history.”

In a statement published by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, the government did not identify the 81 individuals executed and did not say where or how they were put to death. CBS News reports that people sentenced to death are typically beheaded in Saudi Arabia.

The number of people executed on Saturday exceeds the country’s two most recent mass executions—47 people were executed in 2016 and 37 mostly minority Shiites were beheaded in 2019—and surpasses even the 1980 mass execution of 63 people convicted of seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

The government said the executed individuals were convicted of crimes ranging from killings to belonging to militant groups. It did not specify the charges in each case but acknowledged that they included nonhomicide offenses like “pledging allegiance” to foreign terrorist organizations and traveling to conflict zones.

Reprieve said that several of the executed men were convicted of nonviolent offences related to attending protests.

“There are prisoners of conscience on Saudi death row,” the group said in a statement, “and others arrested as children or charged with non-violent crimes. We fear for every one of them following this brutal display of impunity.”

Ali Adubusi, the director of the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights told CBS that some of those executed had been tortured and faced trials “carried out in secret.”

The watchdog group said it had been unable to identify or track most of the cases “due to the lack of transparency in dealing with execution cases, threats, and intimidation of families and civil society,” but in the few cases it could document, “the charges did not include any serious charges.”

“These executions are the opposite of justice,” Mr. Adubusi said.

Saudi Arabia has faced international criticism of its use of the death penalty, including for children.

Despite the kingdom’s pledge to end capital punishment for childhood crimes, Reprieve reports that Mustafa al-Darwish was executed last year for attending protests when he was 17 years old, and Abdullah al-Howaiti, who was just 14 when he was arrested and tortured into signing a false ‘confession’, was resentenced to beheading last month.

Saudi Arabia is among the small group of outlier countries that continue to execute people in contravention of the global trend against capital punishment. Worldwide, 144 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, in contrast with 55 retentionist countries.

Excluding China, just four countries—Iran (at least 246), Egypt (at least 107), Iraq (at least 45), and Saudi Arabia (27)—accounted for 88% of all known executions in 2020, according to Amnesty International. The U.S. followed Saudi Arabia with 17 executions in 2020.

The number of executions in Saudi Arabia declined sharply in 2020 (from 184 recorded in 2019), likely due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the kingdom’s decision not to carry out executions while hosting the G-20 summit.

Amnesty International reported that Saudi Arabia continued to impose death sentences despite failing to meet international fair trial standards in 2020, and that the kingdom was one of four countries known to have used “confessions” that may have been extracted through torture or other ill treatment to convict and sentence people to death.