It’s being described as “the largest mass execution of Shiites in the kingdom’s history” — and it didn’t take place in an official US enemy country like Assad’s Syria or Putin’s Russia or even North Korea. On Tuesday Saudi Arabia (where else?) beheaded 37 Saudi citizens, the vast majority of which have been identified as minority Shiites in yet another sectarian-driven mass execution.
Saudi official statements have said the men were put to death on “terrorism-related crimes,” however human rights groups like Amnesty International have pointed to “sham trials” and confessions extracted through torture. Shockingly, authorities went so far as to tie two of the deceased’s heads and bodies to polls in the manner of a crucifixion, erected as a public warning and deterrent to others.
King Salman personally ratified by royal decree Tuesday’s mass execution, according to Saudi law, just as he did for the prior single day record for mass beheadings, which stands at 47 and occurred on Jan. 2, 2016. The 2016 beheadings included prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whose death sparked unrest across the Shia Muslim world, especially inside Iran and in eastern Saudi Arabia, home to a sizable Shia minority.
Nimr’s killing for what many believe was merely his activism advocating for equal Shia rights inside the kingdom, resulted in soaring tensions with Iran and the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, which remains closed to this day.
This week’s executions of 37 people also included a well known Shia religious leader, Sheikh Mohammed al-Attiyah, charged with sectarian plotting and anti-government organizing in the western city of Jiddah. The Saudi Interior Ministry painted those executed on Tuesday as being extremists seeking to foster discord and instability in the kingdom.
However, Middle East analysts and observers were quick to point out the clear anti-Iran message behind the killings. “This is political,” Ali Al-Ahmed of the Gulf Institute in Washington told the AP. “They didn’t have to execute these people, but it’s important for them to ride the American anti-Iranian wave.”
According to Amnesty International, 11 of the men had been charged with spying for Iran, with 14 others killed for crimes related to pro-Shia, anti-Saudi government protests between 2011 and 2012, including a man who was only 16 years old upon arrest.
Saudi executions today target 32 Shia out of the 37 executed, according to activist and colleague Dr Fuad Ibrahim https://t.co/AcERQwh4sc
— Madawi Al-Rasheed (@MadawiDr) April 23, 2019
In total, a mere 4 months into the year the Saudi state has officially put to death 100 people, compared to 149 killed over the course of 2018. Amnesty has noted most deaths in 2018 stemmed from convictions over non-violent drug offenses.
At least one recent study has noted the kingdom is “on track to set a new record for beheading people in 2019 if it maintains its current intensity for the rest of the year.”
This also corresponds to the White House’s year long pressure campaign against Iran following the US pullout of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Many believe Riyadh is feeling more emboldened and ready to ramp up its anti-Shia messaging as Iran and the Saudis compete for influence over the region.