Saudi Arabia on Tuesday beheaded 37 Saudi citizens, most of them minority Shiites, in a mass execution across the country over what it said was terrorism-related crimes. It publicly pinned one man’s body and severed head to a pole as a warning to others.
The executions were likely to stoke further regional and sectarian tensions between rivals Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran.
Dissident Ali Ahmed, who runs the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, D.C., identified 34 of those executed as Shiites based on the names announced by the Interior Ministry.
Amnesty International also said the majority of those executed were Shiite men. The rights group said they were convicted “after sham trials” that relied on confessions extracted through torture.
The mass killing marked the largest number of executions in a single day in Saudi Arabia since Jan. 2, 2016, when the kingdom executed 47 people over what it said were terrorism-related crimes. That was the largest mass execution Saudi Arabia had carried out since 1980.
Among those executed in 2016 were four Shiites, including prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whose death sparked protests from Pakistan to Iran and the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Saudi-Iran ties have not recovered and the embassy remains shuttered.
King Salman ratified by royal decree Tuesday’s mass execution and that of 2016. The king, who has empowered his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has asserted a bolder and more decisive leadership style than previous monarchs since ascending to the throne in 2015.
Ahmed described Tuesday’s executions as a politically motivated message to Iran.
“This is political,” he said. “They didn’t have to execute these people, but it’s important for them to ride the American anti-Iranian wave.”
Ahmed said among those executed was Shiite religious leader Sheik Mohammed al-Attiyah. Among the charges against him was that he tried to form a sectarian group in the western city of Jidda, Ahmed said. Ahmed said the sheik publicly spoke of the need to work closely with Saudi Arabia’s Sunni majority and would lead small prayer groups among Shiites.
Saudi Arabia’s supreme council of Muslim scholars said the executions were carried out in accordance with Islamic law. The Interior Ministry used language that indicated they were all beheadings.
The Interior Ministry statement said those executed had adopted extremist ideologies and formed terrorist cells with the aim of spreading chaos and provoking sectarian strife. It said the individuals had been found guilty according to the law and ordered executed by the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, which handles terrorism trials, and the country’s high court.
The individuals were found guilty of attacking security installations with explosives, killing a number of security officers and cooperating with enemy organizations against the interests of the country, the Interior Ministry said.
The statement was carried across state-run media, including the Saudi news channel Al Ekhbariya. The statement read on the state-run news channel opened with a verse from the Koran that condemns attacks that aim to create strife and disharmony and warns of great punishment for those who carry out such attacks.
The Interior Ministry said the body of one of the men — Khaled bin Abdel Karim al-Tuwaijri — was publicly pinned to a pole for several hours in a process that is not frequently used by the kingdom and has sparked controversy for its grisly display. The statement did not say in which city the public display took place.
Amnesty International said 11 of the men were convicted of spying for Iran and sentenced to death after a “grossly unfair trial.” At least 14 others executed were convicted of violent offenses related to their participation in anti-government demonstrations in Shiite-populated areas of Saudi Arabia between 2011 and 2012, Amnesty said.
Among those put to death was a young man convicted of a crime that took place when he was 16 years old, according to Amnesty.
Those executed hailed from Riyadh, Mecca, Medina and Asir, as well as Shiite Muslim-populated areas of the Eastern Province and Qassim. The executions also took place in those various regions.
The killings bring the number of people executed since the start of the year to about 100, according to official announcements. Last year, the kingdom executed 149 people, most of them drug smugglers convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to Amnesty’s most recent figures.
Executions are traditionally carried out after midday prayers and the bodies are displayed for about three hours, until late afternoon prayers.
Also, on Sunday four Islamic State gunmen were reported killed by Saudi security forces while trying to attack a security building north of the capital, Riyadh.
Local Islamic State affiliates and Saudis inspired by its ideology launched a series of attacks in Saudi Arabia between 2014 and 2016, killing dozens of people, including security officers and Shiite worshipers. The last major attempted attack is believed to have been two years ago.
The group, like Al Qaeda in the past, is determined to bring down the U.S.-allied royal family of Saudi Arabia. It has sought to undermine the Al Saud royal family’s legitimacy, which is rooted in part in its claim to implement Islamic sharia law and to be the protectors of Islam’s most sacred sites in Mecca and Medina that are at the center of hajj.