“Some criminals were sentenced to the death penalty for their adoption of extreme ideologies and organizing terrorist activity, which corrupts officials, destabilizes security, and spreads chaotic strife.”
The Saudi Press Agency recently tweeted out this vague explanation of a mass execution carried out on April 23, 2019. With the justification of counterterrorism, the Saudi government executed thirty-seven of its citizens, one of whom was even crucified for public display. According to the country’s legal code, crucifixion serves to remind the population of the harsh punishments that follow certain crimes. Thus, in addition to being a punishment, this execution served as a political message from Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman that he will not tolerate dissent.
Although the thirty-seven men were identified and named in a list, their crimes remained unspecified: even information about who committed which crime was not included. What little information that has been provided shows that the vast majority of the prisoners—thirty-three—were Shia, including two minors at the date of their arrest. Augmenting this suspicion of an infringement of human rights is the fact that several of the prisoners confessed allegedly under torture, and Munir al-Adam, an accused prisoner, admitted that the interrogator wrote confessions on his behalf. This has been the largest mass execution that Saudi Arabia has ordered, since a mass execution in 2016, in which forty-seven people were beheaded or killed by firing squad after accusations of terrorist activity.
The Charges and the Execution
After being charged as guilty for attacking government officers and cooperating with political enemy states against Saudi Arabia’s interests, the thirty-seven men were executed in various locations, including the holy city of Mecca. Although the country does not disclose its methods, the death penalty is typically carried out through firing squads or beheading by sword, after morning prayers. In this case, the severed heads and disembodied corpses were strung up on poles in the public square for several hours, with intent of crushing political dissent—a modern-day crucifixion and humiliating trial called salb.
The majority of those accused were charged with espionage. For example, the Specialized Criminal Court convicted a majority of the men in the “Qatif 24 Case,” accusing them of the highest treason through their participation in Iranian espionage and “distorting the reputation of the kingdom.” In the case, some were charged for protest-related criminal activity and aiming guns at police officers, while others were convicted of their participation in “terrorism cells”to spread Shia activities that ultimately that injured dozens. The court also denied all the allegations of torture and remained unresponsive to the prisoner’s request for prison videos that prove their capital punishment. To make matters worse, the families were not told about the sentence prior to the executions.
Among those killed was Mujtaba Nader Abdullah al-Sweikt, a student pre-registered at Western Michigan University. Reportedly, al-Sweikt had been seen at a pro-democratic rally in 2012 for Arab Spring, which ultimately led to his arrest and brutal torture: He was beaten down to his feet until he confessed to his crimes against the Saudi government.
NGOs such as Amnesty International have branded the execution a “grossly unfair trial.” Yet the kingdom is thought to have been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s hostility toward the Iranian government’s Shia leadership, demonstration by the re-imposition of sanctions, the IRGC controversy, and his pulling out of the 2015 Nuclear Deal. Saudi Arabia has taken this seemingly unconditional American support to the extreme, endangering and ignoring human rights in the process. And through these action—the executions of those accused of having mild associations with Iran—the country has sent a clear and cruel anti-Iranian message. Saudi leaders have seemed to take advantage of an opportunity to partner with the United States in terms of opposing Iranian power, and, ironically, a savage counter-terrorist strategy in the name of national security.
Although this jarring demonstration of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia is nothing new, the brutal, Biblical-time style of execution has shocked ambassadors, nations, and NGOs alike.
The UN Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet, has outright condemned these actions, declaring that the executions are especially deplorable due to the abhorrent fact that some of the prisoners were minors when they received the death penalty. She also notes that the United Nations had warned Saudi Arabia prior to the executions about the necessity—a discouraging sign of Saudi Arabia’s inattentiveness to human rights. Yet the fact that there was no condemnation at the national level of the executions from Saudi Arabia’s principal ally—the United States—it is likely that the kingdom would view itself as having a green-light to quash dissent using whatever methods it seems fit.
The European Union has also condemned Saudi Arabia, reinstating the European Union’s goal of abolishing the death penalty as a denial of human integrity. It has iterated its doubts on the right to fair trial that the defendants received, and voices concerns over a refueling of political tension in the area.
Not all in the United States were silent, however. To increase the gravity of the issue, Western Michigan University students and faculty had written a statement to Trump in 2017, pleading him to defend al-Sweikt and the freedom of speech that America holds dear. “We owe a responsibility to Mujtaba'a and all thirteen others facing execution to do everything we can to save their lives,” the statement asserts. “We remain ready to welcome Mujtaba'a al-Sweikat to our campus.” Michigan State Representative Jon Hoadley also admits to have been messaging Trump about the case of one of the executees, Western Michigan State student-to-be al-Sweikt. Calling the student’s execution a “punch in the gut,” Hoadley argues that the US government should have done more to interfere with Saudi Arabia’s inhumane crucifixions and slaughter. By not stopping, or at least negotiating with, Saudi Arabia proves to Hoadley and the Michigan campus that the United States is falling behind on its civil and human rights responsibilities, to the extent that a soon-to-be student at an American institution has been killed at the hands of an oppressive government.
Given the lack of condemnation from the American executive, the United States has also been called into question for its silence. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Iran, expressed disappointment in his mockery of the US government, tweeting, “After a wink at the dismembering of a journalist, not a whisper from the Trump administration when Saudi Arabia beheads thirty-seven men in one day—even crucifying one two days after Easter.” Zarif questions the United States’ supposed human rights values, imagining an almost-immature personality to the United States, matched with bringing up the Easter holiday, a cherished Christian symbol of revival and peace. Although Iran itself is not known for its humanitarian causes, this response from the government hints at a political strategy for Iran to wield the upper hand: what right does America have to criticize Iran when it itself cannot stop the executions in Saudi Arabia? Even Hezbollah, Lebanon’s principal Shia movement, pointed an accusing finger at US indifference, as their statement “strongly condemns the heinous crime committed by the criminal Saudi regime against dozens of innocent civilians, whose only fault was to demand freedom and freedom of expression.”
Drawbacks and the Irony of the 2030 Vision: What now?
Saudi Arabia’s Machiavellianism has had consequences on the nation’s image globally—especially in the light of its optimistic, encouraging 2030 Vision mission. In his visionary statement, bin Salman proudly emphasizes his plans to modernize the country while staying true to its Islamic traditions; to stimulate the economy through market investments; to connect Asia, Europe, and Africa as the epicenter of trade; and to praise the collective cooperation of the younger generations, whom the Crown Prince calls the “real wealth” of Saudi Arabia. The most jarring—and ironic—feature of the 2030 Vision concludes the page, declaring that “Our Vision is a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method.”
If tolerance is a key tenant of Saudi Arabia, clearly the crucifixion, the unfair trial, the torture—the intolerance—that the Saudi Arabian government has disguised, manipulated, and inflicted upon its citizens raises alarming red flags. Should the United States - which has expressed its support for Vision 2030—affiliate with this abuse of human rights? Further, although the Iranian government has only taunted the United States with Tweets thus far regarding the executions, we could see a bolstering of the Iranian global image, despite its similar problems with executions.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have a controversial relationship. Although both nations have the similar goals of diminishing the impact of terrorism in the region and minimizing Iranian hegemony, the path to achieving such goals is, as an understatement, rocky. The executions—and particularly that of a future Michigan student—raises eyebrows to the United States and its glorified presentation as the peace-seeking protagonist, alongside its business with arms sales that can escalate the Yemen civil war and cripple humanitarian movement. All in all, despite the sake of its representation and focus on human rights, the United States probably will not condemn Saudi Arabia for its actions in an attempt to maintain a stable relationship and prevent war.