Riyadh: Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on Saturday for terrorism, mostly said to be Al Qaeda members but also a prominent Shia Muslim cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, Interior Ministry said in a statement broadcast on state television.
The conservative Islamic kingdom, which usually executes people by public beheading, detained thousands of militants after a series of Al Qaeda attacks from 2003-06 that killed hundreds, and has convicted hundreds of them.
However, it also detained hundreds of members of its Shia minority after protests from 2011-13, during which several policemen were killed in shooting and petrol bomb attacks. Several Shia have been sentenced to death.
Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran, has warned that executing Nimr “would cost Saudi Arabia dearly”.
The Interior Ministry statement began with Koranic verses justifying the use of execution and state television showed footage of the aftermath of Al Qaeda attacks in the last decade.
Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh appeared on television soon after to describe the executions as just.
The executions are Saudi Arabia’s first in 2016. At least 157 people were put to death last year, a big increase from the 90 people killed in 2014.
Amnesty International says the number of executions in Saudi Arabia this year is the highest for two decades, since 192 people were put to death in 1995.
The toll has rarely exceeded 90 annually in recent years, it said.
Reasons for the surge are unclear.
Over the past few weeks, however, there has been a marked drop in executions, all of which are reported by the official Saudi Press Agency.
Saudi executions are usually carried out by beheading with a sword.
Rights experts have raised concerns about the fairness of trials in the kingdom, where the interior ministry says the death penalty is a deterrent to crime.
Amnesty says Saudi Arabia had the world’s third-highest number of executions last year, after China and Iran.
Under the kingdom’s strict Islamic legal code, murder, drug trafficking, armed robbery, rape and apostasy are all punishable by death.