Though Saudi Arabia has insisted that the 37 people it executed on Wednesday had all confessed to serious charges of espionage and terrorism, many of the condemned had repeatedly denied their guilt, telling courts their testimonies had been coerced or falsified, CNN reported Friday.
According to court documents obtained by the network, 14 of the condemned were charged with forming a terror cell as part of anti-government protests in 2011-2012. Eleven others were accused of spying for Iran.
But documents seen by CNN showed some of the accused insisted they were innocent to the very end. Many alleged they had been tortured. Some claimed their confessions had been written entirely by their abusers.
In one case, the father of a young accused man said: “He was subjected to psychological and physical abuse which drained his strength… The interrogator dictated the confession… and forced him to sign it so that the torture would stop. He signed it.”
Human Rights Watch has said the convictions were based on “unfair” mass trials and on confessions allegedly extracted through torture.
The US government commission on religious freedom on Friday urged action against ally Saudi Arabia after the mass execution of 37 people, most of them Shiite Muslims.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose members are appointed by the president and lawmakers across party lines but whose role is advisory, said the State Department “must stop giving a free pass” to Saudi Arabia.
The State Department, in a congressionally mandated annual report, classifies Saudi Arabia among its “countries of particular concern” for violations of religious freedom, which would normally require the United States to take punitive actions such as imposing economic sanctions.
But successive secretaries of state have each year issued waivers on punishing Saudi Arabia, citing national security interests.
“The Saudi government’s execution of minority Shia Muslims on the basis of their religious identity and peaceful activism is not only shocking, but also directly contradicts the government’s official narrative of working toward greater modernization and improving religious freedom conditions,” the commission’s chair, Tenzin Dorjee, said in a statement as the commission urged an end to the waivers.
Saudi Arabia practices a puritanical Wahabi ideology, with the latest State Department report on religious freedom pointing to a “pattern of societal prejudice and discrimination” against the Shiite minority and a ban on the practice of any faith besides Islam.
Human rights groups say that nearly all of the Saudi citizens beheaded on Tuesday were Shiite, with one crucified after death. The UN human rights chief said that at least three were minors when charged.
President Donald Trump has vowed to preserve a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, pointing to its major purchases of US weapons, its giant oil exports and its hostility toward US rival Iran.
Trump has not commented on the executions, although the State Department said it urged “Saudi Arabia and all governments” to respect freedom of religion.
HRW’s deputy Middle East director Michael Page has said “Saudi authorities will inevitably characterize those executed as terrorists… but the reality is that Saudi courts are largely devoid of any due process, and many of those executed were condemned based solely on confessions they credibly say were coerced.
“Executing prisoners en masse shows that the current Saudi leadership has little interest in improving the country’s dismal human rights record.”
Rights group Amnesty International said most of those executed were “convicted after sham trials” based on “confessions extracted through torture.”
The executions were “yet another gruesome indication of how the death penalty is being used as a political tool to crush dissent” from within the Shiite minority, it added in a statement.
The mass execution is the largest since January 2016, when Saudi Arabia executed a group of 47 people convicted of “terrorism,” including prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Last year, Saudi Arabia carried out 149 death sentences, making it one of the world’s top three executioners along with China and Iran, according to Amnesty International.
The Eastern Province — home to the bulk of the country’s Shiite minority — has seen bouts of unrest since 2011, when protesters emboldened by the Arab Spring took to the streets demanding an end to alleged discrimination by the government.
Although no official figures exist, Shiites make up an estimated 10-15 percent of the ultra-conservative kingdom’s population of 32 million.
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