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Saudi Arabia executes 81 people, the country's largest mass execution in modern times

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The largest known mass execution in the modern history of Saudi Arabia took place yesterday. Eighty one people were put to death. Saudi officials say they had been convicted of, quote, "multiple heinous crimes." The executions are drawing widespread condemnations from human rights organizations around the world. Stephen Kalin is a Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and is with us now from the Saudi capital city, Riyadh. Thank you so much for being with us.

STEPHEN KALIN: Good to be with you.

ELLIOTT: So Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said he wants to reduce the number of executions in the kingdom, but putting 81 people to death in one day doesn't square with that. What was going on here?

KALIN: Yeah, I think it came as a surprise to many of us. Sometimes the activists who track these things are aware that, you know, a number of people - their execution date might be coming up. But this really took us all by surprise. And there was a notable drop back in 2020, when Saudi Arabia stopped executing people for drug-related offenses.

ELLIOTT: What can you tell us about the men who were put to death, where they were from and how and why they were executed?

KALIN: So there was quite a range. Many of them were terrorism-related - affiliations or activities with groups like Islamic State and al-Qaida - also the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia is fighting. And some of those crimes were related to attacks on either civilians or security forces or security installations. So that was sort of a category. And then there seem to be several dozen people who were executed from the Shia Muslim community in Saudi Arabia, which is a minority community that's discriminated against and often has protests. And there is a segment of the population that engages in militancy and attacks Saudi security forces and other sites.

ELLIOTT: Why a mass execution, though?

KALIN: From a Western perspective, it's really quite shocking, and it doesn't do the Saudis any favors in terms of their public image. This was meant as a message to anybody who would think about threatening Saudi security that this won't be tolerated. But it hurts this image that Saudi Arabia is trying to present of reforming itself - just create a more kind of welcoming image as it's trying to open up the country for tourism and foreign investment.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk a little more about the response to this. You know, Saudi Arabia is already under scrutiny for its human rights record. This can't help.

KALIN: Yeah, that's right. The Saudis have been involved in the war in Yemen since 2015. They've been under fire for civilian casualties there as a result of airstrikes. Then, in 2018, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul - this really galvanized international criticism around the human rights record of Saudi Arabia.

ELLIOTT: I want to ask you a little bit about the timing here. You know, this mass execution comes when the West is now looking to Saudi oil to offset bans on Russian exports. Do you think that the international response might be somewhat tempered because of the global situation right now?

KALIN: Yeah. I mean, I expect that Western governments are a bit distracted, to say the least, with the situation in the Ukraine. And they really do want help from Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, to produce more right now to sort of offset some of the losses from the situation with Russia.

ELLIOTT: And there are reports now that U.K.'s prime minister, Boris Johnson, may be planning a trip.

KALIN: That's right. Boris Johnson might be one of the best kind of envoys for the West and for NATO to come to Saudi and ask the crown prince to start pumping more oil to help, you know, ensure that these sanctions against Russia become effective.

ELLIOTT: Stephen Kalin, Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, thank you for your reporting.

KALIN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.