THE execution of 81 men by Saudi authorities on Saturday — the largest single-day execution in the kingdom’s modern history — is an egregious example of a state arbitrarily depriving individuals of their right to life. The scale of it is shocking — it eclipses even the 1980 execution of 63 militants who had stormed the Holy Kaaba in Makkah in 1979. The right to life forms the bedrock on which all other human rights are based. Though the kingdom insists that all those killed had been provided legal representation and “guaranteed their full rights”, little is known about the cases or legal process that led to the convictions. This is highly problematic, as rights groups have repeatedly pointed out that prisoners of conscience and dissidents have also been put to death in Saudi Arabia, as have individuals who were arrested while they were still children. Activists also question the fairness of trials, especially as the kingdom has repeatedly shown it is notoriously intolerant of dissent.
Indeed, since the kingdom’s last mass execution in January 2016, which had included the execution of prominent dissident and Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the kingdom has put to death dozens of members of the minority community after charging them with terrorism-related crimes. In 2019, for example, the majority of the 37 individuals executed by Saudi authorities belonged to the community, as did 41 out of the 81 executed on Saturday. Saudi Arabia wants to show the world it is modernising: it cannot also continue to be one of the leading executioners in the world. Western powers’ silence on its practices is also quite cynical, especially as criticism of other countries who execute prisoners has usually been swift and unequivocal. There may be little hope on this front, however: some observers have suggested that the ‘convicts’ may have been executed en masse to take advantage of Western powers’ preoccupation with the invasion of Ukraine, with attendant concerns over oil supplies giving the kingdom some added insulation at this point.
Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2022