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Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman arrives to attend the first meeting of the defense ministers and officials of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counter-terrorism alliance in the capital Riyadh on November 26, 2017. © 2017 Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities’ execution of 81 men on March 12, 2022 was its largest mass execution in years despite recent promises to curtail its use of the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said today. Rampant and systemic abuses in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system suggest it is highly unlikely that any of the men received a fair trial.

Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch that 41 of the men belonged to the country’s Shia Muslim minority, who have long suffered systemic discrimination and violence by the government. Many Saudi Shia are serving lengthy sentences, are on death row, or have been executed for protest-related charges following patently unfair trials.

“Saudi Arabia’s mass execution of 81 men this weekend was a brutal show of its autocratic rule, and a justice system that puts the fairness of their trials and sentencing into serious doubt,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The shocking callousness of their treatment is compounded by the fact that many families found out about their loved ones’ deaths just like the rest of us, after the fact and through the media.”

The Interior Ministry on March 12 published the 81 names and said they were executed for crimes including murder and links to foreign terrorist groups, as well as the vaguely worded offense of “monitoring and targeting officials and expatriates.” Others were convicted of targeting “vital economic sites,” smuggling weapons “to destabilize security, sow discord and unrest, and cause riots and chaos,” killing police officers, and planting landmines. Those executed included seven Yemenis and one Syrian, it said. The statement did not say how they had been executed.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman suggested in 2020 that he would push to curb the death penalty for most offenses except for those for which Islamic scripture demanded it. Saudi activists have interpreted his statements as referring to murder and “haraba,” or “waging war against God and society,” a term not clearly defined in the Quran, but that often includes serious and violent crimes such as murder and mass murder, rape, war crimes, and most recently, “acts of terrorism.”

Only three of the 41 Shia men had been convicted on murder charges. The statement said the others were convicted of charges that include attempted murder of police officers “by targeting police stations and other security headquarters,” “monitoring and shooting at security patrols,” obstructing the arrest of other wanted individuals, and carrying out a number of other crimes including kidnapping, robbery, “inciting strife and spreading chaos,” and buying, selling, and owning weapons, ammunition, explosives, and drugs.

Human Rights Watch obtained and analyzed court rulings for five of the 41 Shia men: Aqeel al-Faraj, Mortada al-Musa, Yasin al-Brahim, Mohammed al-Shakhouri, and Asad al-Shibr. All of their trials were marred with due process violations, including that in every case they had told the court that they suffered torture and ill-treatment during interrogations, and that their confessions were forcibly extracted.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty for all five under the Islamic law principle of hudud. But judges sentenced them on the basis of ta’zir, which gives judges wide discretion to determine punishments in individual cases, because they had withdrawn their confessions during proceedings. Human Rights Watch has analyzed multiple trial judgments of members of Saudi Arabia’s Shia community over the past decade, finding similar due process violations in all of them.

Many of the family members said they had not been notified of the executions in advance or offered a chance to say their goodbyes, Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch. A brother of Mohammed al-Shakhouri who was also related to Asad al-Shibr said that he found out about the executions through the local media. “We have no idea how and what time they were killed, how and where they were buried,” he said. “I keep wondering, what were my brother’s last words? Was he buried according to Shia burial rites? Did they pray over his body?”

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error. On March 13, the European Union condemned the mass executions and called for a complete de facto moratorium, “as a first step toward a formal and full abolition of the death penalty.”

The United Nations General Assembly, most recently in 2018, said that countries should establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, progressively restrict the practice, and reduce the offenses for which it might be imposed, all with the view toward its eventual abolition. Then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in 2013 that all countries should abolish the death penalty

Saudi Arabia executed 47 men for terrorism offenses in January 2016. In April 2019, it executed 37 men, at least 33 of whom were Shia and had been convicted following unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses, espionage, and terrorism.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized rampant abuses in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system, including the routine practice of long-term arbitrary detention and sporadic incommunicado detention of prominent detainees.

Saudi Arabia applies Sharia (Islamic law) as its national law. The country has no formal penal code, but the government has passed some laws and regulations that subject certain broadly defined offenses to criminal penalties. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly worded regulations, however, judges and prosecutors can convict people on a wide range of offenses under broad, catch-all charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.”

People accused of crimes, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest. Human Rights Watch has documented rampant due process violations in the court and criminal justice system against defendants in criminal cases. These include long periods of detention without charge or trial, a lack of legal assistance, pressure to sign confessions and accept predetermined prison sentences to avoid prolonged arbitrary detention, and ineffective or pernicious translation services for defendants. Human Rights Watch has also repeatedly criticized Saudi courts’ reliance on torture-tainted confessions as the sole basis of conviction in certain cases.

In 2020, Saudi authorities restated a 2018 legal change halting the death penalty for alleged child offenders for certain crimes, though prosecutors can – and still do – seek the death penalty against child offenders for crimes such as murder. That year the Saudi Human Rights Commission also announced a moratorium on drug-related executions. Saudi activists have said that none of the 41 Shia men executed were children at the time of the crimes they were accused of committing. It is unclear whether any of the others were.

As part of legal reforms announced on February 8, 2021, the country’s first written penal code for discretionary crimes – crimes under Islamic law that have not been defined in writing and that do not carry predetermined punishments – is being prepared, though apparently without any consultation with civil society. The crown prince said the changes are meant to “increase the level of integrity and efficiency of judicial institutions.”

Details are yet to be published and it is unclear how closely these laws will comply with international standards. In particular, Saudi and international human rights groups have raised concerns that many arbitrary charges will simply be codified as wide-ranging, catch-all offenses that criminalize the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, among other rights.

As a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator and to offset the scrutiny and reporting of human rights organizations and domestic activists on human rights, Saudi Arabia is spending billions of dollars hosting major international events. While these initiatives can be used for beneficial purposes, Saudi Arabia is using these government-funded events with celebrities, artists, and athletes to whitewash its poor human rights record and deflect efforts to hold its leadership accountable for these abuses, Human Rights Watch said. 

“For global celebrities looking to cash in on Saudi authorities’ effort to whitewash their bloody reputation, they should consider this latest travesty of justice, a mass execution of 81 people, and ask themselves if it’s really worth it,” Page said.

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