Human Rights Watch said Tuesday it was “highly unlikely” that 81 men Saudi Arabia executed in a single day received fair trials, calling it a “brutal show of its autocratic rule”.
More than half of them, 41, belonged to the kingdom’s Shiite Muslim minority “who have long suffered systemic discrimination and violence by the government”, the New York-based rights group said.
The executions on Saturday were the highest number announced in a single day in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most prolific users of the death penalty, and outstripped its entire total for last year.
“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 HRW’s Middle East deputy director Michael Page.
“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,” he said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia said the men, who included seven Yemenis and one Syrian, belonged either to the ISIS group, Al-Qaeda, Yemen’s Huthi rebels or “other terrorist organizations”.
Their trials were “supervised by a total of 13 judges in three separate stages,” official media said.
But HRW charged that “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.
“Many Saudi (Shiites) are serving lengthy sentences, are on death row or have been executed for protest-related charges following patently unfair trials,” it added.
HRW said it had obtained court judgements for five of the Shiites, finding due process violations in all of them.
“In every case they had told the court that they suffered torture and ill-treatment during interrogations, and that their confessions were forcibly extracted.”
The report quoted a brother of one of the 81 who said he had only found out about the executions through media.
“We have no idea how and what time they were killed, how and where they were buried,” he was quoted as saying.
“I keep wondering, what were my brother’s last words? Was he buried according to (Shiite) burial rites? Did they pray over his body?”
London-based rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday called the mass execution an “appalling escalation” in the kingdom’s use of the death penalty.
“Such a shocking number of deaths also reveals Saudi Arabia’s lack of transparency in death penalty cases since we know that the number of trials resulting in prisoners being placed on death row is always significantly higher than what is publicly reported,” said Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director Lynn Maalouf.
The executions were widely condemned, with UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet raising concerns over potential breaches of international law and even war crimes.