As It Happens

Saudi Arabia sends 'a message of fear' with mass execution, says dissident

On Tuesday, 37 people were beheaded in Saudi Arabia after being tried on vague charges of terrorism

Gulf Institute director Ali Al-Ahmed says many of 37 people killed were young activists and protesters

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman talks with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The regime executed 37 people on Tuesday. (Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court/Reuters)

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Their crimes were unclear — but their sentences were swift and brutal.

On Tuesday, 37 people were beheaded in Saudi Arabia after being tried on vague charges of terrorism.

According to human rights groups, many of those executed were Shia men who were convicted in sham trials and subjected to torture. Some had allegedly been involved in protests against the Saudi regime.

Many of them were simply young activists and protesters, says Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident and director of the Gulf Institute think-tank.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

What do you know about the scene that unfolded yesterday in Saudi Arabia when these executions took place? 

Usually these executions take place in public. But we have no indication they were carried in public. Mostly they were carried inside prisons and by beheadings and dismemberment.

One individual was dismembered and displayed for the public.

The number is staggering. The thought of this is just incomprehensible. But I want to maybe try to put a bit of a human face on what happened [Tuesday] and a couple of the people I know you're familiar with or you know who were executed. Can you tell us about Abdullah Al Suraih? 

Most of the people who were executed are young people. They are in their early twenties.

Abdullah Al Suraih is one of them. He's not even 22 and he comes from a poor family. [He] lived in a shanty house, very close to the oil port Ras Tanura.

He was one of the leaders of the protest. He gave speeches in these protests, although he doesn't have much education because of the Saudi deprivation.

And the goal of these protests were equality, were job opportunities, were end of oppression and shooting.

And he made a video, did he not? 

He made several videos. One of them speeches ... during demonstration. He made a video showing ... his residence where he lived with his mother and younger brothers and sisters.

So he was beheaded yesterday, as was Mujtaba Al-Sweikat. Can you tell us about him? 

Mujtaba Al-Sweikat is one of the youngest victims of the executions. He was ready to move to Michigan to start his schooling. He is an A student, went to a private school, was a handball player, an accomplished handball player.

He was also an actor. In his graduation letter, he said [he] wanted to be an engineer. And he was arrested in the airport when he was leaving — and his charge was protest.

He participated in protest. In Saudi Arabia, the terrorism law says if you agitate against the king or the ruler, you are a terrorist.

And this is the idea that somehow Saudi Arabia is a partner in the war against terror. Canada looks at it the same way and no one's going to dispute this if they are terrorism charges. Is that it?

Absolutely, I remind the world — who cried rivers of tears over [Saudi dissident columnist] Jamal Khashoggi's murder, rightfully, and did not believe the Saudi narrative that changed every day — this is extremely the same exact situation. 

The Saudi government is an absolute monarchy that does not accept or allow dissent, including some woman who just want to drive.

Before these men, these 37 people, were executed, did they have anything like a trial? Did they have representation? I understand there were confessions, probably extracted by torture. Was any of that reviewed in any kind of legal context?

The Saudi court system is abysmal. It does not belong to this modern time. 

If you are a Shia or black or a secular individual, let alone be a woman, you're not allowed to be part of that court system.

And the judges who render these judgments, they do it under orders of the Saudi government. They are part of it.

The decision is already made. It's a kangaroo court in many ways.

Finally, the vast majority of these men who were executed were of the Shia Muslim minority. Why is that?

There is this plan [for a] nationwide protest happening [on] Ramadan, which is 10 days from now.

The government wanted to use the weakest part of the country to execute these protesters to warn the Sunni population, the majority, if they do that they would face similar.

So they use the Shia as the scapegoat. This is nothing new in Saudi Arabia. They have always used the Shia, the powerless, the weakest in terms of they don't have any support internationally. They cannot threaten the existence of the government.

So they use the Shia as the scapegoat, sacrificial lamb, really, to send a message of fear to the majority population.

And that goes along also with the American vision of the Middle East that, you know, that it's easy to link Shia to Iran and it's been very commonly accepted if you're Shia, you're an Iranian sympathizer.

That has played a huge role in the decision.

Written by Chris Harbord and John McGill. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A edited for length and clarity.