As I wrote this article on the night of March 12 in Washington, seven young men – all in their early twenties – were still alive and praying to God for some last-minute grace to save them from facing a firing squad outside the palatial offices of the governor of Saudi Arabia's Aseer province, Faisal Ben Khalid, who ordered their execution.
Their prayers fell on deaf ears in the kingdom. The men, who were convicted of armed robbery, were executed on March 13, in a move denounced by Amnesty International as an “act of sheer brutality.”
Hundreds of people are executed in Saudi Arabia every year – because some executions are carried out in secret, no one knows the real numbers. In 2007, the newspaper Arab News reported that 400 people remained on death row in the province of Makka alone. There are 12 other regions in the kingdom, so the total number of people awaiting execution could easily reach several thousand.
The Saudi government runs one of the most backward and xenophobic judicial systems on the planet. There is no formal legal code. Judges must all espouse the government-approved Salafi version of Islam. Blacks, who make up around 10 percent of the population, are banned from judgeships – as are women and Muslims who observe a different version of the faith – because the monarchy's religious tradition still views blacks as slaves, other Muslims as heretics, and women as half human. There is only one word to describe such a system: apartheid.
In addition, the judicial branch is part of the government – a blatant conflict with the supposed neutrality of judges. The Saudi justice minister also serves as president of the Saudi Supreme Court. That would be like having U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The condemned men hail from the southern tribes of Saudi Arabia, which have been a target of the monarchy's systematic discrimination. Since the foundation of Saudi Arabia in 1932, there has not been a single minister from the south, which comprises 27 percent of the population and is inhabited largely by Sunni Muslims who follow the government-sanctioned Salafi doctrine. Before his death, one of the executed men, Saeed al-Shahrani, even refused to provide his photo for this article because he followed the government fatwas banning photos of live objects. That's more than can be said of the members of the ruling family: The royals in the House of Saud are notorious for plastering pictures of themselves in every place possible.
The body of one of the men, Sarhan al-Mashayekh, was supposed to be put on public display for three days, according to the execution warrant. But because everything in Saudi Arabia is political, that did not happen. The government likely feared that such an act would attract international embarrassment, and possibly a violent reaction by the large southern tribes. The executed men came from five large tribes, and thousands of people gathered to protest when the men were killed – photos provided by an eyewitness showed hundreds of well-armed soldiers and dozens of armored vehicles protecting the scene of the execution.
The young men were sentenced for robbing several jewelry stores at gunpoint seven years ago. No one was killed, and the stolen gold was given back to the owners. Saeed, one of the convicted young men, who spoke to me daily since March 1 using a smuggled mobile phone, told me, “I was 15 and I did not carry a gun. I want to go to my family.”
Poverty was the biggest factor behind this crime. All seven were unemployed and came from poor families, reflecting the severe economic conditions faced by many in Saudi Arabia. The unemployment rate in the kingdom is among the highest in the Middle East – it runs over 40 percent among males and over 80 percent among females.
This massacre proves, once again, that Western governments never miss an opportunity to tell Saudi people: “We couldn't care less about your problems.” Even the U.N. High Commissioner's office – which called on governments around the world to halt the executions of prisoners, including Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein – refused to make any public pleas on behalf of these young men before the executions.
Since I learned about these executions, I was spending 14 hours a day to contact as many governments as possible to push the Saudi monarchy for a delay and a retrial of these men. Yes, they admitted their guilt – but they were tortured and had no access to counsel at any stage of the trial.
One of the letters I sent went to Lord Nicholas Philips, a former president of Britain's Supreme Court, asking him to petition the Saudi government for a stay and a retrial. Lord Philips is important because he had met with the Saudi minister of justice and, according to the official Saudi press, praised the Saudi justice system last April while receiving a Saudi delegation. That visit was an apparent attempt to convince the British chief justice to allow the signing of a prisoner-exchange agreement with Saudi Arabia. That agreement will allow the return of Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasir Al Saud, a Saudi prince who murdered his lover and manservant in a London hotel.
I believe the Saudi monarchy, which has been pushing for a prisoner exchange agreement with Britain to free the prince, would have accepted pardoning these seven young men if their death was an obstacle to freeing their murderous son. I was banking that Philips would adopt the cause of saving these lives.
I also appealed to State Department officials, noting that it was in their self-interest to intervene on behalf of these men. After a letter and copious phone calls, I was able to get across the point that executing seven men a mere day after Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up his first visit to Riyadh would look bad. Things appeared to change quickly after that – the king granted a one-week stay of execution, presumably to avoid embarrassing his high-ranking American guest.
By the time I finished the first draft of this story, I received a grateful call from Saeed, but his call was cut off – perhaps because armed guards had entered the chambers to take him to face his death. My friend Saeed, you remembered to call to say goodbye before you died. Farewell Saeed. I am sorry I could not do more.
Ali AlAhmed is director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs.