• Danielle Uehara

The Largest Mass Execution in Saudi Arabia’s Modern Kingdom

On March 12 in Saudi Arabia, 81 people were executed for a variety of crimes, making it the largest mass execution in the country’s modern history.


Why are executions happening in Saudi Arabia?


According to the state-run Saudi Press Agency, “The kingdom will continue to take a strict and unwavering stance against terrorism and extremist ideologies that threaten the stability of the entire world.” Saudi Arabia follows the Islamic Law, also known as the Sharia. According to the Islamic Law, people can be given a death penalty for intentional murder and Fasad fil-ardh (“spreading mischief in the land”). This can be interpreted in different ways ― generally treason, apostasy (leaving faith), terrorism, piracy of any kind, rape, adultery, and homosexual activity are all classified as activties “spreading mischief in the land.”

In addition to the Islamic Law, the government has passed legislation that allows a broader range of offenses to be considered crimes. However, the Islamic law is not applicable to some situations. In such cases, judges and prosecutors can charge offenders with “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.” Many people call these catch-all offenses, which means that the offenses can be applied to a dangerously wide range of crimes, to include minor offenses. This leads some to believe that offenders can oftentimes be given an unfair trial based on race or religion alone. Some also assert that many offenders face unfair trials because of the lack of a written penal code, code of criminal procedure, or judicial procedure.


Details of the Executions


Reasons for the recent mass execution spanned for a variety of crimes. Some of those recently executed were murderers, while others were executed for “participating in and inciting sit-ins and protests,” both of which are protected by the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. 41 of the 81 criminals were from the Shia Muslim minority community, leading many people to believe that the government aimed to target them with discrimination and undue violence.


The Human Rights Watch analyzed the court procedure for five Shia men. According to all five, they had been tortured and mistreated during the interrogations, with confessions forcibly extracted. Many have said that they were given no lawyer. However, according to the Saudi Press Agency, “The accused were provided with the right to an attorney and were guaranteed their full rights under Saudi law during the judicial process.”


How are executions traditionally carried out?


Traditionally, criminals are carried out into the public square on Fridays after prayers. The execution order is read and criminals are executed, commonly by way of beheading, but criminals have also been shot by firing squads, stoned, and hung. After the execution, the bodies are often publicly displayed.


Occasionally, there is a way out. In a few cases, instead of being sentenced to death, whatever the offender did to the victim is done to them. Sometimes, victims can alternatively ask for financial compensation or even grant a conditional or unconditional pardon.


Many of the family members of those executed had not been notified of the death penalty in advance or offered a chance to say their goodbyes. The brother of one of the Shia men executed said, “We have no idea how and what time they were killed or how and where they were buried. I keep wondering, what were my brother’s last words? Was he buried according to Shia burial rites? Did they pray over his body?”


What does the world think about the recent mass execution?


Much of the world believes that the recent executions are inhumane, many urging Saudi Arabia to stop. Soraya Bauwens, the deputy director of Reprieve, a critic of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, “The world should know by now that when Mohammed bin Salman promises reform, bloodshed is bound to follow.”


In 2013, the then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged United Nations member states to abolish death penalties. According to him, “The taking of a life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict on another, even when backed by legal process.”


In 2018, during the United Nations General Assembly, it was announced that countries should restrict giving offenders death penalties. According to the Human Rights Watch in 2020, Saudi Arabia promised to cut back its use of death penalties. In response to this promise, Saudi Arabia restated that it would be halting death penalties for children who commit certain crimes, unless pertaining to murder. In 2020, only eight people were executed, compared to 2019, when a total of 184 were executed, a record in the modern history of Saudi Arabia (only including what is publicly reported). After the mass execution this year, many fear that Saudi Arabia is regressing back to its old ways.


Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (U.S. Secretary of Defense/Flickr)