The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia carried out the mass execution by beheading of 81 people accused on terrorism-related charges on Saturday March 12. This number exceeds the total number of executions carried out in all of 2021. The news was met with rejection and outrage from human rights organizations and governments across the globe.
On Monday March 14, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet released a statement condemning the mass executions and called on the Saudi regime to put an immediate moratorium on executions.
Bachelet warned that “Our monitoring indicates that some of those executed were sentenced to death following trials that did not meet fair trial and due process guarantees, and for crimes that did not appear to meet the most serious crimes threshold, as required under international law.”
She also expressed concern that “some of the executions appear to be linked to the ongoing armed conflict in Yemen,” adding that “implementation of death sentences following trials that do not offer the required fair trial guarantees is prohibited by international human rights and humanitarian law and may amount to a war crime.”
As per a statement quoted in the official Saudi Press Agency, all of those executed had been “found guilty of committing multiple heinous crimes,” adding that some of them had links to the Islamic State jihadist group, Al-Qaeda, Yemen’s Houthi rebel forces or “other terrorist organizations”.
However, the Saudi claims were contradicted by the high commissioner, who said that among those who were put to death Saturday last week were 41 individuals from the Shia minority inside Saudi Arabia who had participated in anti-government protests in 2011-12, seven Yemeni nationals, one Syrian national.
Bachelet noted that the Saudi legal system has “an extremely broad definition of terrorism, including non-violent acts that supposedly ‘endanger national unity’ or ‘undermine the state’s reputation,” and that it “risks criminalizing people exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.” Bachelet further urged the Saudi authorities to bring the country’s counter-terrorism laws fully into line with international standards.”
Saudi Arabia has regularly been criticized by rights groups and anti-death penalty campaigners for still prolifically using the death penalty as punishment for crimes, and has one of the highest rates of executions among the 38 countries where capital punishment is still implemented. It had carried out 67 executions last year, 27 in 2020 and 37 in 2019, majority of whom were from the country’s persecuted, marginalized Shia minority, who were executed on charges of “terrorism”.
Bachelet appealed to the Saudi authorities “to halt all executions, immediately establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, and commute the death sentences against those on death row.”
Western governments, most of which are allies and trade partners with Saudi Arabia, were conspicuous in their silence, with the United States, one of its major western allies, declining to comment whether it has raised the issue with the Saudi authorities following the mass execution. Saudi Arabia’s neighbor and regional rival, Iran, which had been holding talks with Saudi Arabia to improve relations between the two countries, suspended the fifth round of talks on Sunday, a decision which many attributed to the mass executions. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh, condemned the executions, calling them a violation of “basic principles of human rights and international law” and the convictions against the executed individuals as being carried out “without observing fair judicial processes.”