Seven Saudi men convicted of theft, looting and armed robbery have been executed, according to the country’s official news agency, more than a week after their families and a rights group appealed to the king for clemency.
The executions took place on Wednesday in Abha, a city in the southern region of Asir, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.
The Associated Press news agency quoted a resident who witnessed the execution as saying that the seven were shot dead by a firing squad, a first in the kingdom, which traditionally has beheaded convicts sentenced to death.
Another witness told AFP news agency 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 seven were arrested in 2006 and received death sentences in 2009, a Saudi newspaper reported at the time.
The case was back in focus after Human Rights Watch earlier this month called for the sentences to be cancelled because the men were juveniles at the time of their arrest.
The US-based international rights watchdog appealed to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud not to execute the seven and said there was “strong evidence” that they did not get a fair trial.
“It is high time for the Saudis to stop executing child offenders and start observing their obligations under international human rights law,” Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at HRW, said.
The following day, Abdullah ordered a one-week suspension until the case was reviewed.
One of the men told the Associated Press in early March that he was only 15 when he was arrested as part of a ring that stole jewelry in 2004 and 2005.
Nasser al-Qahtani said he was tortured to confess and had no access to lawyers.
Al-Qahtani said that during the years-long trial, he only faced the judge three times and when the men tried to complain to the judge about the torture or show torture marks on their bodies, they were ignored.
He also said the judge never assigned him a lawyer.
The original sentences called for death by firing squad and crucifixion.
Amnesty International, the UK-based human-rights advocacy group, called the executions an “act of sheer brutality”.
“We are outraged by the execution of seven men in Saudi Arabia this morning. We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, but this case has been particularly shocking,” Philip Luther, the group’s Middle East and North Africa director, said.
“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.”
The Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs, which campaigned for the suspension of the executions, recently said in a note to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that one of the reasons the seven were sentenced to death was that “they hail from the south, a region that is heavily marginalised by the Saudi monarchy, which views them as lower-class citizens”.
Saudi Arabia has executed 23 people so far this year, including the seven men on Wednesday.
Last year it executed 76 people and in 2011, 79. Also, several people were reported crucified in Saudi Arabia last year. In 2009, Amnesty International condemned such executions as “the ultimate form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment”.
The kingdom follows a strict implementation of Islamic law under which people convicted of murder, rape or armed robbery can be executed, usually by sword.
On Sunday, a Saudi paper reported that the government was looking into formally dropping public beheadings as a method of execution and instead considering death by a firing squad as an alternative.
There have also been calls in the kingdom to replace public beheadings with lethal injections carried out in prisons.