CAIRO >> Officials in Saudi Arabia have said that the executions of 47 prisoners on Saturday were a long overdue reckoning for militants, including accused Qaida members who were said to be recruiters, propagandists or bomb makers who helped carry out deadly attacks in the kingdom more than a decade ago.
But despite the weight of some of the accusations, the Saudi authorities had been in no hurry to put to the men to death, allowing some to languish in prison for a decade or more. Only four of the men were convicted of crimes in the most severe category, punishable by death under Islamic law, reinforcing the fact that the death penalty is far less common in terrorism cases in Saudi Arabia than in drug or murder cases, according to human rights advocates.
With its decision to execute the accused militants, along with Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken anti-government cleric and advocate for Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority who was arrested in 2012, the Saudi government seemed willing to endure the potentially high political costs of the killings in order to deliver a warning to would-be militants, political dissidents and others that any challenge to the royal family’s rule would not be tolerated, analysts say.
It remained to be seen whether the executions would provoke a backlash among Sunni ultraconservatives. But the killings of al-Nimr and three other Shiite dissidents undermined the government’s assertions that it had executed only terrorists and prompted an explosion of tensions between Saudi Arabia and the Shiite government of Iran that has shaken the region.
The executions “did not serve the national interest,” according to Fawaz A. Gerges, the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In addition to the regional turmoil the executions have caused, they “could tear the social fabric” between Sunnis and Shiites in Saudi Arabia, Gerges said.
Analysts have placed the executions in the context of more muscular policies pursued by the new Saudi ruler, King Salman, who ascended the throne nearly a year ago and has had to reckon with a series of mounting challenges, including falling oil prices and the spread of the Islamic State militant group.
But Saudi rulers have appeared to prioritize the country’s regional struggle with Iran, leading to policies that critics have derided as reckless, including a decision to go to war in Yemen, in order to defeat a rebel movement that Saudi Arabia regards as an Iranian proxy force.
The decision to execute al-Nimr and the other prisoners, like the decision to get involved in the war in Yemen, “has major ramifications,” Gerges said.
“The fact that the kingdom was willing to go ahead, to take the risk, represents a major break with the past,” he added.
The Saudi government has bristled at international condemnation of its actions. In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in response to his criticisms of the judicial process, the Saudi Mission to the United Nations said that it “assures the independence and impartiality of the judiciary authority in the Kingdom.”
The condemned men, the statement said, “had fair and public trials,” as well as access to lawyers and appeals.
Many of the militants who were put to death were part of a Qaida insurgency that took root in Saudi Arabia in 2003. The fight against the militants preoccupied the authorities for years, but by 2008, Saudi Arabia had “broken the backbone of the al-Qaida cells,” Gerges said. Militants were arrested or exiled, many of them to Yemen.
The Saudi government has not provided details about the individuals who were executed, or their specific crimes, though some information about the men has appeared in news reports. The condemned were all Saudi citizens, except for two, including one Egyptian.
One of the best-known prisoners, Faris al-Shuwail, had been on a list of Saudi Arabia’s most wanted Qaida militants when he was arrested in August 2004, in southern Saudi Arabia. News reports called him an influential ideologue for al-Qaida who had written texts that praised al-Qaida leaders and justified the killing of Saudi security officers.
Another prisoner put to death Saturday, Adel al-Dhubaiti, was convicted of killing Simon Cumbers, an Irish freelance cameraman who had been working on a story on al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia for the BBC in June 2004. Dhubaiti had been among a group of men who attacked Cumbers and his colleague, Frank Gardner, a BBC correspondent, who was shot multiple times during the attack and left partly paralyzed.
In its statement, the Saudi Mission to the U.N. said that the militants were treated fairly and that “some of the cases took up to ten years before courts and all suspects were able to appeal all judgments.”
But al-Nimr and the three other Shiite dissidents were imprisoned for less than three years before they were executed. They were arrested during a wave of protests in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province that was stirred by the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Al-Nimr was held for eight months before he was charged with a crime, according to Human Rights Watch. Legal advocates who have followed the cases of the other three men said they were frequently denied access to lawyers.
Like al-Nimr, two of the Shiite dissidents came from the town of Amwamiya, and were arrested in the winter of 2012. One, Ali Saeed al-Rebh, was 18 when he was arrested by police officers who took him from his school, according to Ali Dubaisy, an activist with the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, based in Germany.
Mohamed Faisal al-Shayoukh, also from Amwamiya, was 19 at the time of his arrest. Reprieve, an international human rights organization that has followed their cases, said that both men were subjected to torture, including beatings and electric shocks, while in custody. They were convicted on charges that included weapons possession and targeting security personnel, Reprieve said.
The two were executed on Saturday at the maximum security prison where they were held south of Riyadh, the Saudi capital.