Congress calls out Saudis for executions, including student headed to US college

The State Department called for "fair" trials and "transparency."

April 24, 2019, 11:36 PM

Members of Congress are expressing outrage at the execution of over three dozen prisoners in Saudi Arabia, including a prospective U.S. college student, but the State Department is declining to specifically condemn the executions.

Thirty-seven people were executed on Tuesday, accused of alleged terrorism-related crimes or other national security offenses, according to the official Saudi Press Agency. But Amnesty International said the convictions were obtained under "sham trials that violated international fair trial standards which relied on confessions extracted through torture."

Among those executed were at least two men who were arrested when they were younger than 18 years old -- a violation of international law, according to human rights groups.

When asked about the executions, a State Department spokesperson told ABC News, "We have seen these reports. We urge the government of Saudi Arabia, and all governments, to ensure fair trial guarantees, freedom from arbitrary and extrajudicial detention, transparency, rule of law, and freedom of religion and belief."

In this March 22, 2018 file photo, an Honor Guard member is covered by the flag of Saudi Arabia as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the Pentagon with an Honor Cordon.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Despite the outrage among human rights groups, the State Department did not specifically condemn the executions.

"We have spoken out publicly about many of our concerns, including in the Human Rights and International Religious Freedom reports" that the department produces each year, "and continue to do so in our private diplomatic engagements as well," the spokesperson added. "For anything further, I would refer you to the government of Saudi Arabia."

The Trump administration has been criticized of looking the other way on Saudi human rights abuses, including the detention of U.S. citizens and women's rights activists and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Instead, Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have defended the Saudi government, especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sometimes known by his initials "MBS."

That has drawn the ire of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who say "MBS" played a role in Khashoggi's killing and is behind the crackdown on dissent in the kingdom -- and the U.S. needs to send him a message.

"Saudi Arabia ruler MBS tortures & executes children. Already this year, he has killed 100 people. At least 3 today were arrested as teenagers & tortured into false confessions. He killed them for attending protests!" tweeted Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Tuesday night.

Tlaib was responding to a news story about the execution of one of those men who was arrested as a minor: Mujtaba al-Sweikat was slated to attend Western Michigan, but was arrested for taking part in pro-democracy rallies, according to the human rights charity Reprieve, which handled al-Sweikat’s case while he was awaiting execution.

Al-Sweikat was arrested in 2012 at King Fahd International Airport where he was due to take a flight to begin studying at Western Michigan University. He was tortured after his arrest, denied access to a viable complaints mechanism and was “forced to sign a confession document,” according to his Reprieve case file, seen by ABC News.

Mujtaba al-Sweikat was only 17 when on his way to start studying at the University of Michigan when he was arrested in 2012.

“This is yet another egregious display of brutality by Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman,” Reprieve Director Maya Foa said in a statement. “That the Saudi regime believes it has impunity to carry out such patently illegal executions, without notice, should shock its international partners into action. The U.S. and the U.K., in particular, must ensure there are consequences, and that no-one else is unlawfully executed for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

Because al-Sweikat was a minor at the time of his arrest, his execution by Saudi authorities constitutes a “violation of international law,” according to Reprieve.

Saudi Arabia has executed 104 people this year, according to Amnesty International, and is on pace to quickly surpass last year's total of 149.

Most of those killed Tuesday were Shiite men, according to Amnesty International. The majority of Muslims in Saudi Arabia are Sunnis, and Shias have been repressed for years.

"Today’s mass execution is a chilling demonstration of the Saudi Arabian authorities callous disregard for human life," Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International, said in a statement. "It is also yet another gruesome indication of how the death penalty is being used as a political tool to crush dissent from within the country’s Shi’a minority."

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., questions Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Washington.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Tlaib, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress last November, along with Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, has been a vocal critic of Trump's, calling for his impeachment since her election.

Omar echoed Tlaib's comments, describing the executions as “appalling,” adding that “We have to stop selling the Saudis weapons and supporting this brutality.”

Tlaib and Omar have been the target of criticism due to their relationship with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR was started by two prominent members of the Islamic Association for Palestine, which raised money for Hamas, a terrorist group as designated by the U.S. government, according to the conservative think tank Influence Watch. Both women have spoken at CAIR events.

Omar has said she's gotten regular death threats since Trump criticized her for referring to the Sept. 11 attacks as "some people did something."

Editor's Note: ABC News added a clarification that Influence Watch is a conservative think tank. It also clarifies that CAIR was started by two prominent former members of the IAP, as opposed to "growing out of it."