Saudi Arabia is ranked among the top five executioners in the world and has executed at least 100 people this year [Sedat Suna-EPA-EFE]
European Photopress Agency

The United States government commission on religious freedom has urged action against ally Saudi Arabia after its mass execution of 37 people, most of them Shia Muslims.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose members are appointed by the president and legislators across party lines but whose role is advisory, said the US State Department “must stop giving a free pass” to Saudi Arabia.

On Friday, the commission issued a statement after reports emerged the youngest of the 37 men executed on Tuesday was only 16 when he was charged.

Abdulkarim al-Hawaj’s death sentence had prompted an outcry from the United Nations, which had urged the kingdom to overturn the ruling.

Hawaj reportedly “confessed” to his crimes after being beaten and tortured with electricity while his hands were chained above his head, human rights charity Reprieve has said.

Another of the men executed on Tuesday was Mujtaba al-Sweikat, who was 17 when he took part in a pro-democracy rally in 2012.

According to Reprieve, al-Sweikat was “severely beaten all over his body, including the soles of his feet.” It said he was convicted “on the basis of a confession extracted through torture”.

Tenzin Dorjee, the chair of the commission, called the executions “shocking” and urged the State Department to end waivers to the kingdom.

“The Saudi government’s execution of minority Shia Muslims on the basis of their religious identity and peaceful activism is not only shocking, but also directly contradicts the government’s official narrative of working towards greater modernisation and improving religious freedom conditions.

“The State Department must stop giving a free pass to the Saudi government, which, for many years, has punished numerous Saudi citizens and expatriate workers for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief,” she said.

The State Department classifies Saudi Arabia among its “countries of particular concern” for violations of religious freedom, which would normally require Washington to take punitive actions such as imposing economic sanctions.

However, successive secretaries of state have each year issued waivers on punishing Riyadh, citing national security interests.

Top five executioner

Human rights groups have said that nearly all of the Saudi citizens beheaded on Tuesday were Shia, with one of the men’s body put on public display after his death.

US President Donald Trump has vowed to preserve a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, pointing to its major purchases of US weapons, its giant oil exports and its hostility towards US rival Iran.

Trump has not commented on the executions, although the State Department said it urged “Saudi Arabia and all governments” to respect freedom of religion.

According to data released by the SPA, at least 100 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of this year.

The oil-rich Gulf state is ranked among the top five executioners in the world, and according to Amnesty International carried out the death sentences of 149 people last year.

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