Public execution takes place in Saudi Arabia's Abha square despite appeals by international rights groups
Riyadh: A Saudi firing squad on Wednesday executed in public seven men convicted of armed robbery despite last-minute appeals by rights groups that their lives be spared, the interior ministry and a witness said.
The condemned men were convicted of "forming a gang that carried out several armed robberies and thefts with the help of other people," the ministry said in a statement published by the official SPA news agency.
They were executed "as a punishment to them and to deter others" from carrying out similar crimes, said SPA, adding that their fellow-robbers had been sentenced to various jail terms and lashes.
A witness said by telephone that "the execution was "implemented a while ago at a public square in Abha," adding that the defendants were "shot dead" and not beheaded as is customary in the kingdom.
The announcement came soon after Amnesty International released a statement renewing calls on the Saudi authorities to halt the executions.
They "look set to be shot on Wednesday morning," said Amnesty, which described the executions as "sheer brutality."
The seven men – Sarhan Al Mashaikh, Saeed Al Zahrani, Ali Al Shahri, Nasser Al Qahtani, Saeed Al Shahrani, Abdul Aziz Al Amri and Ali Al Qahtani – were charged with organising a criminal group, armed robbery and raiding and breaking into jewellery stores in 2005, and sentenced to death in 2009.
International rights groups had protested that the men – now aged between 20 to 24 years old according to news website sabq.org – were condemned for crimes committed when they were juveniles.
"It is a bloody day when a government executes seven people on the grounds of 'confessions' obtained under torture, submitted at a trial where they had no legal representation or recourse to appeal," said Amnesty's Mena director Philip Luther.
They claimed their relatives were also "threatened with torture if they withdrew their 'confessions'," said Amnesty.
They had been scheduled to die on March 5, but their executions were postponed for a week.
Three UN human rights experts on Tuesday had also urged Saudi Arabia to halt the executions, saying the case had breached international standards of justice.
In a joint statement, the United Nations monitors said the men had allegedly been convicted on the basis of trumped-up charges and flawed trials.
Executions in Saudi Arabia, which applies a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law, are generally carried out by beheading but media reports said authorities were considering using firing squads due to a shortage of executioners.
Local Al Yawm daily reported that the kingdom has formed a specialised committee to study the "possibility of replacing beheadings by the sword with firing squads as this is not against sharia (Islamic law)."
This is due to "the lack of beheaders who may sometimes take long to arrive at the execution site from other regions causing confusion," it said.
Also on Wednesday, authorities executed another national, Fada Al Subaie in the southwestern Mecca region, after he was convicted of murdering a fellow Saudi, SPA reported. It did not specify the method of his execution.
Wednesday's executions bring to 26 the number of people put to death in Saudi Arabia so far this year.
In 2012, the kingdom executed 76 people, according to an AFP tally based on official figures. The US-based Human Rights Watch put the number at 69.
Saudi's authorities have frequently been criticised by rights groups for the rate of executions and for perceived lack of fair trails of those condemned.
In January, Sri Lankan maid Rizana Nafeek was beheaded after being convicted of murdering her employer's baby, a week after arriving in Saudi Arabia in 2005 at the age of 17.
The execution took place despite concerns about her trial and numerous appeals from Sri Lanka and the international community to spare her, sparking a diplomatic row between the kingdom and the Asian country.
Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery and drug trafficking are all punishable by death under Saudi Arabia's strict version of sharia, or Islamic law.
Source: Agence France-Presse, March 13, 2013