Saudi Arabia's mass killing is an execution of human rights

Saudi Arabia's mass killing is an execution of human rights
7 min read
30 Apr, 2022
The kingdom’s long list of human rights abuses and international law violations have only accelerated in 2022, culminating in a mass execution of 81 prisoners. The international community must do more to hold Riyadh accountable, writes Nadine Sayegh.
People gather in front of Saudi Consulate in New York to protest against Saudi Arabia's decision to execute three leading scholars in New York, United States on June 1, 2019 [Getty]

Since the start of the new year, Saudi Arabia has come under heavy scrutiny for a truly vast array of human rights abuses. With recent reports that the Saudi-led coalition killed at least 80 civilians in Yemen in an attack in January, seriously injuring another 150, human rights groups are currently campaigning to include prosecuting such violations of international law as part of the ongoing peace talks.

In addition, Saudi Arabia is also receiving heavy criticism for its administrative detention of 4 Uyghur Muslims (including one child) and the looming threat of deportation back to China where their ethnic group is persecuted.

“Deporting these four people – including a child – to China, where Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are facing a horrific campaign of mass internment, persecution and torture, would be an outrageous violation of international law,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Regional Director for MENA region at Amnesty International.

"From unjust imprisonment of numerous women’s rights activists, wonton assassinations of journalists, to the mistreatment of their foreign labour force, it seems the oil-rich nation is continuously exempt from the standards to which the remaining of the world is held"

But the Gulf Kingdom’s rap sheet of human rights abuses doesn't end there. Recently, there has been public outcry in both Turkey and Saudi Arabia for halting the trial of the killers of Jamal Khashoggi, where 26 Saudi suspects were being tried in absentia in Ankara. The trial will now be transferred to Riyadh, where the prospect of justice is slim.

But what is arguably most indicative of the kingdom’s insidious disregard for human rights is a less discussed event that took place locally.

Last month, one of the largest official mass executions in the past century took place largely unnoticed in Saudi Arabia. 81 people were executed in a single day, a greater number than the total number of executions that took place in the kingdom throughout the entirety of last year and almost triple that of those in 2020.

While some human rights organizations have spoken out against these executions, and what can legitimately be considered state-sponsored murder, for the most part Saudi Arabia has not received any significant condemnation - and certainly no active reaction. This is problematic on both the local and international scale, and has geopolitical ramifications. 

Saudi Arabia is no stranger to criticism for violations of human rights - be it towards their own citizens or foreign workers. From unjust imprisonment of numerous women’s rights activists, wonton assassinations of journalists, to the mistreatment of their foreign labour force, it seems the oil-rich nation is continuously exempt from the standards to which the remaining of the world is held.

The execution of these individuals in itself is controversial due to the contentious nature of the death penalty. Where the death penalty is in place and deemed applicable, it is as a general rule reserved for only the most heinous of crimes, and it is rarely carried out with such a wide scope. 

Government statements indicate that the majority of those executed were indicted under charges of terrorism; the crimes range from specifically targeting police agencies to holding ‘deviant beliefs,’ to armed robbery and attempted murder, with little information or effort made to elaborate further.

However, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, amongst other reports, highlighted that while these people were sentenced to death, the most final of punishments, many of them were not given the right of due process. Furthermore, they were executed by beheading, one of the more brutal forms of the death penalty. 

Of the 81 people executed, 41 were Shia Muslims who participated in the 2011-2012 uprisings demanding more political inclusion. One was a Syrian national and eight were Yemeni citizens. In fact, the majority of those executed were from groups already othered in Saudi society, who face systemic discrimination and therefore are likely to have faced clear biases against them by virtue of their identity. 

Adding to the reports that these people did not receive an adequate and fair judicial process, their actual jurisdiction is contentious. At the very least, the eight non-nationals, and specifically members of the Yemeni Houthi group, should have been treated as prisoners of war. The Saudi Press Agency, the official news agency of the kingdom, naturally contradicts this stating, “ [the] accused were provided with the right to an attorney and were guaranteed their full rights under Saudi law during the judicial process.”

Human Rights Watch issued a report based on analysis of the obtained court proceedings of 5 of the 41 Shia men and found that, “All of their trials were marred with due process violations, including that in every case they had told the court that they suffered torture and ill-treatment during interrogations, and that their confessions were forcibly extracted.”

The executed also included 37 Saudi nationals who were found guilty in a single case for attempting to assassinate security officers and targeting police stations and convoys, the Saudi official statement added.

"In fact, the majority of those executed were from groups already othered in Saudi society, who face systemic discrimination and therefore are likely to have faced clear biases against them by virtue of their identity"

One case pertained to a man who was sentenced to crimes allegedly committed when he was just 14 years old. Saudi Arabia is one of only eight countries that has executed juvenile offenders since 1990, the others being China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, and the United States.

What is even more problematic still is that Saudi Arabia passed a law in 2020 citing that the death penalty would no longer apply to juvenile offenders, and claimed that this law would apply retroactively, meaning that current prisoners on death row for crimes committed as a juvenile would now be spared execution.

The man, Abdallah al-Huwaiti, was charged with armed robbery and murder, along with 5 other alleged accomplices, all of whom were minors. Reports highlight that these accomplices all testified to being subject to intense interrogation and torture, which generally leads to false confessions.

This too was the case for al-Huwaiti; Maya Foa, director of Reprieve said, “Abdullah al-Howaiti has now been sentenced to death not once, but twice, by a court that knows he was fourteen years old when he was arrested and tortured. How can this be when Saudi Arabia has claimed, so often and so vociferously, to have eliminated the death penalty for children?"

The Crown Prince of Saudi Mohammed bin Salman had stated the reform of the criminal justice system only to order the execution of these individuals one week later. 

While it may be too late to spare those executed from their unfair fate, the importance of reporting and speaking about this subject, by human rights organisations and the media, is to raise awareness about the Saudi’s state's unjust and disproportionate actions.

The organisations themselves do not carry enough weight to change domestic policy and have no jurisdiction to push for reform on their own. The Saudi citizens and residents are themselves subject to this harsh treatment and thus will not risk their own safety and that of their families, but this in no way indicates approval for these actions, rather a justified fear of speaking out.

This leaves only the international community to put pressure on their own governments to raise this issue, particularly those in the West. In the past few weeks the world has witnessed sanctions slapped onto Russia, as well as the Russian people, for a very similar reason. It is now time to also put pressure on other dictatorships to stop these arbitrary abuses on human life.

Nadine Sayegh is a multidisciplinary writer and researcher covering the Arab world. For over ten years, she has covered a variety of both social and geopolitical issues including gender in the region, human security, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.