Dubai: Saudi Arabia on Saturday executed 81 people, most of them pro-democracy activists in what is now known as the largest known mass execution carried out in a single day in the modern history of highly-conservative Arab kingdom.
The number of executed surpassed even the toll of a January 1980 mass execution for the 63 militants who had seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979.
In an announcement on Saturday, the state-run Saudi Press Agency said 81 inmates were executed, alleging that the suspects had been convicted of a variety of crimes, including killings and belonging to militant groups.
The latest executions by Saudi authorities in one day exceeded the total number of executions conducted in the Arab kingdom throughout 2021.
Among those executed with beheadings were a number of purported members of Yemen's popular Ansarullah movement. The movement is the political arm of resistance against a Saudi-led military coalition that has been waging a war on the Yemeni nation since March 2015.
It wasn't clear why the kingdom choose Saturday for the executions, though they came as much of the world's attention remained focused on Russia's war on Ukraine -- and as the U.S. hopes to lower record-high gasoline prices as energy prices spike worldwide. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly plans a trip to Saudi Arabia next week over oil prices as well.
The number of death penalty cases being carried out in Saudi Arabia had dropped during the coronavirus pandemic, though the kingdom continued to behead convicts under King Salman and his assertive son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency announced Saturday's executions, saying they included those "convicted of various crimes, including the murdering of innocent men, women and children."
Those executed included 73 Saudis, seven Yemenis and one Syrian. The report did not say where the executions took place.
An announcement by Saudi state television described those executed as having "followed the footsteps of Satan" in carrying out their crimes.
The executions drew immediate international criticism.
"The world should know by now that when Mohammed bin Salman promises reform, bloodshed is bound to follow," said Soraya Bauwens, the deputy director of Reprieve, a London-based advocacy group.
Ali Adubusi, the director of the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, alleged that some of those executed had been tortured and faced trials "carried out in secret."
"These executions are the opposite of justice," he said.
The kingdom's last mass execution occurred in early January 2016, when Saudi authorities executed 47 people, including prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, who had vociferously called for democracy in the kingdom and advocated anti-regime protests. Nimr had been arrested in Qatif, Eastern Province, in 2012.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has reportedly executed more than 900 prisoners in an increasing rate. In 2019 alone, Saudi Arabia set a record number of executions after Saudi authorities executed 184 people, despite a general decrease in the number of executions around the world.
In April 2020, Reprieve, a UK-based non-profit organization, said Saudi Arabia had carried out its 800th execution. The report added that executions had almost doubled in only five years in comparison with the 423 executions conducted in Saudi Arabia from 2009 through 2014.