Saudi executions alarming rights groups again

There has been widespread condemnation of recent executions in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, including four men convicted in a secret, so-called “terrorism” court.

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Human-rights groups are voicing increasing concern over what they call an unprecedented rate of executions in Saudi Arabia, already with one of the highest rates in the world.

It comes after four men were executed in Qatif, in the country’s east, after being charged with protest-related crimes and acts of violence.

At least six others were executed the previous day on smaller, criminal charges.

The director of the London-based, prisoner-rights organisation Reprieve, Maya Foa, says it is alarming.

“We’ve now seen 11 executions in just two days, which is an unprecedented rate of executions for Saudi Arabia and deeply troubling. It recalls the mass execution that we had over a year ago now, where 47 people were executed in one day, and there are really troubling concerns that Saudi Arabia may be now ramping up its execution machinery to kill more people on its death row.”

Middle East researcher Adam Coogle, at Human Rights Watch, says his organisation reviewed more than a dozen Shiite convictions in the same region in 2011 and 2012.

“In nearly all of the cases, the Shia citizens were convicted almost solely based on confessions that they gave freely, supposedly, to Saudi police.”

Mr Coogle describes the case of a man named Yussuf al-Mushaikass.

“Human Rights Watch has reviewed his case file, and this was certainly true of his case. He alleged that he was tortured to get a confession. Some of the Shia sentenced to death also include individuals who supposedly committed their crimes, the crimes that they’re alleged to have committed, before they were 18, so they’re considered to be child offenders. We’re aware of, I believe, four or five of these cases, and these individuals are currently on death row.”

Maya Foa cites the widely publicised case of 22-year-old Ali al-Nimr, who has spent five years in a Saudi prison, three on death row.

“Ali Al-Nimr was, of course, a young man, a juvenile, just 17 years old, who was arrested after he attended a protest. He was tortured terribly and then convicted and sentenced to death — he was actually sentenced to death by crucifixion.”

He is the nephew of Saudi Shiite cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution, along with 47 others in January 2016, sparked widespread international condemnation.

“He is among other juveniles who face imminent execution. The charges, just to be clear … I said ‘attending a protest,’ (but,) on the charge sheet, they have things like ‘inviting friends to the protest on their BlackBerrys,’ ‘administering first aid at the protest.’ These are not things that we would ever consider to be crimes, let alone meriting execution.”

Ali Al-Ahmed is a former political prisoner in Saudi Arabia who now heads the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington.

He links what he calls the targeted executions to the country’s quest to establish its legitimacy in the eastern region of Qatib.

“If you compare it to the rest of Saudi Arabia, it has always been a place where politics have been made. Movements from communist to pan-Arabist to Islamist to liberal movements have been born there, and activists from there dominate the country’s political opposition, historically. So this is an area which has been giving the Saudi monarchy a big headache for many years.”

He rejects the idea that the Saudi government is targeting militants there.

“Most of them, protesters. All of them are protesters, but, most of them, their only crime is to protest or to write slogans on the walls or to raise the words in Arabic ‘Death to Al-Saud’ or ‘Down to Al-Saud.’ And that is a very, very sensitive and huge embarrassment to the Saudi monarchy, who view themselves as human gods, basically. And insulting them personally has no punishment but death, and that’s why Sheikh Al-Nimr was executed, because he dared to speak badly in public inside Saudi Arabia about the Saudi royal family, by name.”

Reprieve’s Maya Foa cites the case of another juvenile executed during last year’s mass executions that included Sheikh Al-Nimr.

“We later found out that there were a number of juveniles among those executed, including Ali Al-Ribh, who was a young man pulled out of school by the police, tortured, forced to sign a forced confession, sentenced to death and executed before we knew about the case. His family only found out that he had been executed after it had happened by reading it in a newspaper.”

Reprieve is calling for more involvement from governments such as Australia.

Maya Foa says it wants them to make clear to the Saudi royal family and newly appointed Crown Prince they do not support the execution of juveniles for attending peaceful protests.

“Silence is effectively condoning this behaviour and could very quickly turn into complicity.”