Saudi Arabia said Saturday it had executed a record 81 people in one day for terrorism-related offences, exceeding the total number killed last year and sparking criticism from rights activists.
All had been “found guilty of committing multiple heinous crimes”, the official Saudi Press Agency reported, saying they included convicts linked to the Islamic State group, Al-Qaeda, Yemen’s Huthi rebel forces or “other terrorist organisations”.
The wealthy Gulf country has one of the world’s highest execution rates and has often carried out previous death sentences by beheading.
Those executed had been sentenced over plotting attacks in the kingdom — including killing “a large number” of civilians and members of the security forces, the SPA statement read.
“They also include convictions for targeting government personnel and vital economic sites, the killing of law enforcement officers and maiming their bodies, and planting land mines to target police vehicles,” the SPA said.
“The convictions include crimes of kidnapping, torture, rape, smuggling arms and bombs into the kingdom,” it added.
Of the 81 people killed, 73 were Saudi citizens, seven were Yemeni and one was a Syrian national.
– ‘Strict and unwavering stance’ –
SPA said all those executed were tried in Saudi courts, with trials overseen by 13 judges, held over three separate stages for each individual.
“The kingdom will continue to take a strict and unwavering stance against terrorism and extremist ideologies that threaten stability,” the news agency added.
Saudi Arabia has been the target of a series of deadly shootings and bombings since late 2014 carried out by IS group extremists.
The kingdom is also leading a military coalition that has been fighting in Yemen since 2015 against Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who have in turn launched strikes on Saudi Arabia.
But the executions sparked condemnation from Britain-based campaign group Reprieve.
“Just last week the Crown Prince (Mohammed bin Salman) told journalists he plans to modernise Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system, only to order the largest mass execution in the country’s history,” Reprieve said.
“There are prisoners of conscience on Saudi death row, and others arrested as children or charged with non-violent crimes. We fear for every one of them following this brutal display of impunity.”
Saturday’s announcement of 81 deaths marks more than the total of 69 executions in all of 2021.
Up until Saturday, Saudi Arabia in 2022 had executed 11 people convicted of various crimes, according to an AFP tally based on official announcement. This brings the total executed so far this year to 92.
Around 50 countries worldwide continue to use the death penalty.
In 2020, 88 per cent of all 483 reported executions took place in just four countries: Iran, with 246, followed by Egypt with 107, Iraq with 45, and then Saudi Arabia, which carried out 27 that year, according to Amnesty International.
– Death row for teenage crime –
The executions on Saturday were announced a day after the release of Saudi blogger and human rights activist Raif Badawi, who had been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years’ prison on charges of insulting Islam.
But Badawi, who received only 50 lashes before the punishment was halted following global condemnation, is now subject to a 10-year travel ban, officials confirmed to AFP on Saturday.
It means the 38-year-old is unable to rejoin his wife Ensaf Haidar and their three children in Canada, where they fled following his arrest.
In recent years, Saudi has announced a series of reforms concerning sentences, including a moratorium on the death penalty for drug offences, as well as abolishing court-ordered floggings.
In April 2020, the kingdom also announced it was ending the death penalty for those convicted of crimes committed when they were under 18.
On Saturday, a rights group and relatives of a Saudi man sentenced to death when he was a minor said he had been taken to hospital after going on hunger strike and collapsing.
Abdullah al-Howaiti, who was just 14 when he was arrested in 2017 on charges of armed robbery and killing a police officer, was first sentenced to death in 2019, with the verdict upheld last month in a retrial.
“Abdullah has gone on hunger strike and has been hospitalised after collapsing,” Reprieve said.