As I wrote this article on the night of March 12 in Washington, seven young men -- all in their early twenties -- were still alive and praying to God for some last-minute grace to save them from facing a firing squad outside the palatial offices of the governor of Saudi Arabia's Aseer province, Faisal Ben Khalid, who ordered their execution.
Their prayers fell on deaf ears in the kingdom. The men, who were convicted of armed robbery, were executed on March 13, in a move denounced by Amnesty International as an "act of sheer brutality."
Hundreds of people are executed in Saudi Arabia every year -- because some executions are carried out in secret, no one knows the real numbers. In 2007, the newspaper Arab News reported that 400 people remained on death row in the province of Makka alone. There are 12 other regions in the kingdom, so the total number of people awaiting execution could easily reach several thousand.
The Saudi government runs one of the most backward and xenophobic judicial systems on the planet. There is no formal legal code. Judges must all espouse the government-approved Salafi version of Islam. Blacks, who make up around 10 percent of the population, are banned from judgeships -- as are women and Muslims who observe a different version of the faith -- because the monarchy's religious tradition still views blacks as slaves, other Muslims as heretics, and women as half human. There is only one word to describe such a system: apartheid.
In addition, the judicial branch is part of the government -- a blatant conflict with the supposed neutrality of judges. The Saudi justice minister also serves as president of the Saudi Supreme Court. That would be like having U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The condemned men hail from the southern tribes of Saudi Arabia, which have been a target of the monarchy's systematic discrimination. Since the foundation of Saudi Arabia in 1932, there has not been a single minister from the south, which composes 27 percent of the population and is inhabited largely by Sunni Muslims who follow the government-sanctioned Salafi doctrine. Before his death, one of the executed men, Saeed al-Shahrani, even refused to provide his photo for this article because he followed the government fatwas banning photos of live objects. That's more than can be said of the members of the ruling family: The royals in the House of Saud are notorious for plastering pictures of themselves in every place possible.
The body of one of the men, Sarhan al-Mashayekh, was supposed to be put on public display for three days, according to the execution warrant. But because everything in Saudi Arabia is political, that did not happen. The government likely feared that such an act would attract international embarrassment, and possibly a violent reaction by the large southern tribes. The executed men came from five large tribes, and thousands of people gathered to protest when the men were killed -- photos provided by an eyewitness showed hundreds of well-armed soldiers and dozens of armored vehicles protecting the scene of the execution.