On April 9th President Trump spoke to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by phone, discussing the Kingdom’s role in Middle East stability, continued pressure on Iran and human rights issues. It seems MBS may have had his phone on mute, unless he was unaware that Saudi Arabia was set to execute 37 men on April 23, largely for crimes of intention, such as ‘terrorist and extremist thinking,’ and ‘forming terrorism cells.’
They went ahead. 33 of those executed were Shia Muslims, accused of protest, espionage, and terrorism. Fourteen were tortured into confessing to participation in protests in 2011-12. Two of their beheaded bodies were publicly hung from a pole. Eleven were part of the ‘Iran spy case’, in which charges included ‘distorting the reputation of the kingdom.’ Three were children when arrested; Mujtaba al-Sweikat and Salman Qureish were 17, and Abdulkareem al-Hawaj 16, making their executions crimes under international law.
Mass execution of suspected Shia dissidents is a return to form for the Saudis. In 2016 they executed 47 in one day on similar torture-generated confessions, including the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The Sheikh’s nephew, Ali al-Nimr sentenced to beheading and crucifixion in 2014 for ‘participation in an illegal demonstration,’, ‘explaining how to give first aid to protestors’, and ‘inviting others to join him, has been awaiting execution ever since.
Sentencing is a formality, since Saudi courts are largely devoid of due process. Torture claims are rejected offhand. The accused have no access to their lawyers until two weeks prior to trial. The Saudi Ministry of Justice website claims today that ‘all defendants before Saudi courts are entitled to fair trials that meet all standards, conditions and requirements, and also comply with all legal requirements in force in Saudi Arabia.’ The rub, as Shakespeare would say, is in the last few words.
The UN Committee Against Torture, hearing in 2016 that torture is widespread and used with impunity, expressed ‘deep concern’ that whilst Saudi law weakly forbids ‘torture’ it does not define it. The Gulf centre for torture reports that it includes severe beating and flogging, hooding, suspension by hands and feet, beating on the soles (falaqa), deprivation of sleep, food and light, exposure to extremes of temperature and prolonged solitary confinement. Many of these lead to permanent disability. Recent detainees have added repeated electric shock treatment, sexual abuse and having water forced into the mouth until they choke to these grim lists. The human rights organisation Alkarama says some of those interrogated by the religious police have been beaten to death.
Possibly the Saudis think if they tell themselves this is not torture, then it isn’t. Possibly the rest of the world thinks that if we tell ourselves that by selling them weapons and giving them a seat on the Human Rights council things will change, then they will. Anyone who has examined a former detainee, however, would suggest that the rest of the world should stop telling itself such a load of rot and judge the Kingdom for what it truly is, a torturous, oppressive, discriminatory, cruel, spiteful dictatorship buying its way to respectability. If this make those that are prepared to sell respectability to such a place morally corrupted by the commodification of decency, so be it.