Saudi Arabia has killed 81 people for terror offences and other violent crimes in the largest mass execution in the kingdom’s modern history.
The number surpassed even the toll of a January 1980 mass execution for the 63 militants convicted of seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979.
This was considered the worst-ever militant attack to target the kingdom and Islam’s holiest site.
It wasn’t clear why the kingdom chose today for the executions, though they came as much of the world’s attention remained focused on Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The executions were also carried out as the US hopes to lower record-high gasoline prices as energy prices spike worldwide.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to visit Saudi Arabia next week over oil prices as well.
The number of death penalty cases being carried out in Saudi Arabia had dropped during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the kingdom continued to behead convicts under King Salman and his assertive son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency announced today’s executions, saying they included those ‘convicted of various crimes, including the murdering of innocent men, women and children’.
The kingdom also said some of those executed were members of al-Qaeda, ISIS and also backers of Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Iran-backed Houthis since 2015 in neighbouring Yemen in an effort to restore the internationally recognised government to power.
Those executed included 73 Saudis, seven Yemenis and one Syrian. The report did not say where the executions took place.
‘The accused were provided with the right to an attorney and were guaranteed their full rights under Saudi law during the judicial process, which found them guilty of committing multiple heinous crimes that left a large number of civilians and law enforcement officers dead,’ the Saudi Press Agency said.
‘The kingdom will continue to take a strict and unwavering stance against terrorism and extremist ideologies that threaten the stability of the entire world.’
The report did not say how the prisoners were executed, but death-row inmates typically are beheaded in Saudi Arabia.
An announcement by Saudi state television described those executed as having ‘followed the footsteps of Satan’ in carrying out their crimes.
The executions drew immediate international criticism, including from London-based advocacy group Reprive.
Its deputy director, Soraya Bauwens said: ‘The world should know by now that when Mohammed bin Salman promises reform, bloodshed is bound to follow.’
Ali Adubusi, the director of the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, alleged that some of those executed had been tortured and faced trials ‘carried out in secret’. He added: ‘These executions are the opposite of justice.’
The kingdom’s last mass execution came in January 2016, when the kingdom executed 47 people, including a prominent opposition Shiite cleric who had rallied demonstrations in the kingdom.
In 2019, the kingdom beheaded 37 Saudi citizens, most of them minority Shiites, in a mass execution across the country for alleged terrorism-related crimes.
It also publicly nailed the severed body and head of a convicted extremist to a pole as a warning to others. Such crucifixions after execution, while rare, do occur in the kingdom.
The Saudi statement did not say the faiths of those killed, but activists believe over three dozen were also Shiites.
Shiites, who live primarily in the kingdom’s oil-rich east, have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens. Executions of Shiites in the past have stirred regional unrest.
Saudi Arabia meanwhile remains engaged in diplomatic talks with its Shiite regional rival Iran to try to ease yearslong tensions.
Sporadic protests over the mass execution erupted this evening night in the island kingdom of Bahrain – which has a majority Shiite population but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy.
Since taking power, Crown Prince Mohammed under his father has increasingly liberalised life in the kingdom, opening movie theatres, allowing women to drive and defanging the country’s once-feared religious police.
However, US intelligence agencies believe the crown prince also ordered the slaying and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, while overseeing airstrikes in Yemen that killed hundreds of civilians.
In excerpts of an interview with The Atlantic magazine, the crown prince discussed the death penalty, saying a ‘high percentage’ of executions had been halted through the payment of so-called ‘blood money’ settlements to grieving families.
He said: ‘Well about the death penalty, we got rid of all of it, except for one category, and this one is written in the Quran, and we cannot do anything about it, even if we wished to do something, because it is clear teaching in the Quran.’
‘If someone killed someone, another person, the family of that person has the right, after going to the court, to apply capital punishment, unless they forgive him. Or if someone threatens the life of many people, that means he has to be punished by the death penalty.’
He added: ‘Regardless if I like it or not, I don’t have the power to change it.