Saudi Arabia's mass execution of 47 people on January 2 was a bloody emblem in the country's self-marketing as a leader in the global campaign against ISIS and other armed extremist groups. But it was also a stark example of what Saudi Arabia, and many other countries, are getting wrong in that effort. The kingdom has a lengthy history of justifying its own violence and human rights violations in the name of countering terror. We have documented the trials and convictions of many peaceful activists and a host of due process violations at the Specialized Criminal Court, set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases but often used to prosecute peaceful dissidents. In 2014, Saudi Arabia passed an extremely broad counterterrorism law and regulations, including sweeping provisions that authorities can use to criminalize virtually any expression critical of the government. Now mass executions can be added to the list of egregious abuses. To be sure, Saudi judges convicted all of the 47 men on terrorism-related charges, according to the Saudi state news agency, and most were members of Al-Qaeda, tied to a series of violent Al-Qaeda attacks between 2003 and 2004. What the announcement did not say was which of the 47 men it convicted of planning or committing violent attacks, and which it convicted on other "terrorism" charges, like "insulting the reputation of the state" or "disturbing public order." What we do know is that at least four of those on the list, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the prominent cleric from Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province whose execution led to a break in relations with Iran, were Shia, making it questionable that they would have links to Sunni Al-Qaeda and its 2003 and 2004 attacks. The execution of Al-Nimr, whose conviction was largely based on his fiery but peaceful denunciations of Saudi Arabia's systematic discrimination against its Shia minority, smack of a stark and threatening message to the Shia population who protested for their rights during the Arab uprisings that began in 2011: Protest too much and you'll end up dead. In the case of Sheikh Nimr, the most closely watched of these cases, the Specialized Criminal Court detained him for eight months before bringing charges. It held trial sessions without informing his legal representative, then sentenced him to death for what passes for terror in the Saudi official mindset-"breaking allegiance with the ruler," "calling for demonstrations," and "inciting sectarian strife." Some of the Shia demonstrations did end in violence, with reports that at least 16 people, including 2 police officers, were killed before 2013. The officers who arrested Nimr in 2012 claimed he violently resisted arrest and engaged in a gunfight with police, though it is hard to imagine why a prominent activist leader who had long rejected violent resistance would suddenly turn to violence. A 2011 BBC report quoted al-Nimr as supporting "the roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons ... the weapon of the word is stronger than bullets." There was nothing new or extraordinary in the flawed trial that led to Sheikh Nimr's execution on Saturday, and if some of the trials for the 46 others adequately protected defendants' rights, they would be the anomaly. We have documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system, which has no penal code, and allows judges to convict people on broadly framed charges, some of which do not resemble recognizable crimes, to quickly dismiss allegations of torture of the accused without investigation and to admit confessions that defendants claim are coerced without investigating those claims.
Our analysis of trials of four Shia protesters tried before the Specialized Criminal Court in September 2014, for example, revealed that one defendant was charged with "being in contact with foreign news organizations to exaggerate the news and harm the government of the kingdom," and "circulating his phone number to [foreign] news agencies to allow them to call him." Saudi Arabia's executions follow the oft-practiced school of "do as I say, not as I do." They contrast starkly with a pillar of the UN counterterrorism strategy adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in 2006 and reaffirmed--at least on paper--by the US-led, Saudi-supported, "Summit to Counter Violent Extremism" involving more than 60 countries last February: that protecting human rights is an integral component of countering terror. As US President Barack Obama declared, "[T]he link is undeniable. When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied-particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines-when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit." At the summit meeting, ministers of the countries--including Saudi Arabia--agreed to address social and political marginalization, to strengthen relations between communities and security forces based on respect for human rights, and to elevate the role of credible religious voices that support tolerance and non-violence. But what the Saudis have delivered instead are mass executions, receiving little more than tepid bleatings of "concern" from the United States and United Kingdom, close allies of Riyadh that also often fail to practice what they preach when it comes to human rights and counterterrorism. Saudi Arabia is not alone in the region in justifying executions and due process violations as moves to stem terrorism; Iraq executed 177 people in 2013, many on terrorism charges and a ten-year high, and Iran executed over 800 people in 2015. While promises made at summits might be quickly forgotten, mass executions, systematic discrimination and the suppression and ultimate beheading of opposition figures is still unlikely to make Saudis or anyone else more secure. Protecting human rights remains part and parcel of countering terror. If Saudi Arabia really wants to lead the counter-terror campaign, it should be giving those preaching peace a place of prominence, not a sword to the neck.