The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia executed 81 people on March 12, 2022, the largest mass execution in the modern history of the country, eliciting outrage from United Nations and non-governmental human rights organizations.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement March 14 saying that the executions did not conform to “international human rights and humanitarian law and may amount to a war crime.” “I condemn Saudi Arabia’s mass execution,” she said.

Saudi authorities asserted that the prisoners, who had been tried in special Saudi terrorism courts, had been able to exercise “their full rights under Saudi law.” A statement released by the Saudi Ministry of the Interior claimed that the prisoners had committed “multiple heinous crimes that left a large number of civilians and law enforcement officers dead,” including “the murdering of innocent men, women and children” and “allegiance to foreign terrorist organisations.”

However, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that 41 members of the minority Shia Muslim community who had taken part in anti-government protests had been executed, as well as seven Yemeni nationals and one Syrian detained in connection with the Saudi government’s military interventions in their countries. The European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR) said that it found multiple cases in which defendants had been denied access to a lawyer, were tortured into signing confessions, and been unable to communicate with the outside world.

ESOHR director Ali Adubusi said the charges against many of the accused involved “not a drop of blood” and none of the cases involved charges that warranted execution under Saudi Arabia’s public criteria for the death penalty. The organization said it was unable to track the charges in all of the cases because of a lack of transparency in the Saudi justice system and government efforts to intimidate family members of the accused. “These executions are the opposite of justice,” Adubusi said.

The executions came as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been touting social reforms in the Kingdom, including pledges by the Saudi government to end capital punishment for drug offenses and to no longer execute juvenile offenders. Each time, the promises were followed by additional executions. Following the mass execution, Soraya Bauwens, the deputy director of the London-based human rights organization, Reprieve, said: “The world should know that when Mohammed bin Salman promises reform, bloodshed is bound to follow.”

High Commissioner Bachelet said U.N. monitoring “indicates that some of those executed were sentenced to death following trials that did not meet fair trial and due process guarantees, and for crimes that did not appear to meet the most serious crimes threshold, as required under international law.” Reprieve was more blunt, calling the mass execution a “brutal display of impunity.”

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said “This execution spree is all the more chilling in light of Saudi Arabia’s deeply flawed justice system, which metes out death sentences following trials that are grossly and blatantly unfair, including basing verdicts on ‘confessions’ extracted under torture or other ill-treatment.“ The mass execution, Amnesty said in a web post, “signals an appalling escalation in Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty.”

Human Rights Watch issued a news release stating that “[r]ampant and systemic abuses in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system suggest it is highly unlikely that any of the men received a fair trial.“ The organization’s deputy Middle East director, Michael Page, called the Saudi mass executions “a brutal show of its autocratic rule.“

“Today’s unprecedented shocking mass executions in what we know to be sham trials under sham laws in Saudi Arabia should dispel any mythology about [Crown Prince bin Salman’s] transforming into some kind of ‘reformer,’” Sarah Leah Whiston, executive director of the nonprofit Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) said in a March 12 press advisory. DAWN was founded by the late journalist Jamal Khashoggi to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by Saudi assassins after being lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that bin Salman ordered the killing.

ESOHR reported that this was fourth mass execution by Saudi authorities in the past decade. The March 2022 mass execution, ESOHR said, “was preceded by two massacres in 2016” in which a total of 47 people were beheaded, and the beheadings of 37 people in 2019. The March 2022 mass execution was reportedly the largest in modern Saudi history, surpassing the January 1980 mass execution of 63 militants convicted of seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979.

The mass executions exceeded in one day the 67 executions Saudi authorities carried out in all of 2021 and the 27 Saudi executions in 2020. Amnesty said the executions brought Saudi Arabia’s total of executions to 92 so far in 2022.

The Saudi interior ministry did not disclose the manner in which the government conducted the executions.


Vivian Yee, Saudi Arabia Puts 81 to Death, Despite Promises to Curb Executions, The New York Times, March 12, 2022; Stephen Kalin and Summer Said, Saudi Arabia Puts 81 People to Death in Its Largest Execution Ever, The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2022; Jon Gambrell, Saudi Arabia puts 81 to death in its largest mass exe­cu­tion, Associated Press, March 12, 2022; Euronews, Saudi Arabia car­ries out mass exe­cu­tion of 81 inmates, biggest in mod­ern his­to­ry, Euronews, March 12, 2022; Aljazeera, Saudi Arabia exe­cutes 81 peo­ple in a sin­gle day, Aljazeera, March 12, 2022. Press Advisory, Saudi Arabia Executed 81 in an Unprecedented Number of Mass Executions in the Modern History of the Arabian Peninsula, Democracy for the Arab World Now, March 12, 2022; The third and largest mass exe­cu­tion mas­sacre dur­ing the reign of King Salman and his son, European Saudi organ­i­sa­tion for Human Rights, March 12, 2022; Comment by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on the exe­cu­tion of 81 peo­ple in Saudi Arabia, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, March 14, 2022; Saudi Arabia: Mass exe­cu­tion of 81 men shows urgent need to abol­ish the death penal­ty, Amnesty International, March 15, 2022; Saudi Arabia: Mass Execution of 81 Men, Human Rights Watch, March 15, 2022; Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, Saudi Crown Prince Is Held Responsible for Khashoggi Killing in U.S. Report, New York Times, February 26, 2021, updat­ed July 172021.