Saudi prince executed for murder. Justice or just more bloodshed?

Some see the death sentence as proof that Saudi Arabian law applies to everyone, but the news comes as human rights groups have condemned a surge in executions.

Ali Jarekji/Reuters/File
The Kingdom Tower stands in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

In a rare execution of a royal family member, a Saudi prince was put to death Tuesday in Riyadh after he was convicted for shooting another man dead in a fight. 

While the death sentence serves as proof to some that even the ruling elites are subject to Saudi Arabian law, which is based on Islamic holy texts, the punishment is also part of a surge in executions that international human rights groups have condemned.

Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer, one of the royal family's estimated thousands of members, pleaded guilty to shooting a fellow Saudi man following a brawl, the ministry of the interior said. The victim's family refused to accept "blood money," and the kingdom's Supreme Court upheld the prince's conviction, as the BBC reported.

"The greatest thing is that the citizen sees the law applied to everyone, and that there are not big people and other small people," prominent Saudi lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahim wrote on Twitter, as The New York Times reported.

But the execution, the kingdom's 134th this year, is part of an upward trend that has prompted criticism from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other non-governmental organizations.

"Executions in Saudi Arabia have been surging dramatically for two years now and this appalling trend shows no sign of slowing," said James Lynch, the deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International, in a written statement in May.

"The steep increase in executions is even more appalling given the pervasive flaws in Saudi Arabia's justice system which mean that it is entirely routine for people to be sentenced to death after grossly unfair trials," Mr. Lynch added, calling for a moratorium on executions.

Last year, the kingdom put at least 158 people to death, the highest number recorded since 1995, according to Amnesty International, which opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. With at least 134 executions so far this year, Saudi Arabia is on pace to meet or even exceed last year's figure.

The kingdom ranked just behind Iran, which executed at least 977 people last year, most for drug-related crimes. China is believed to have the most annual executions, though the total number is unknown. 

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia drew harsh criticism for executing Sheikh al-Nimr, a leading cleric of the Shiite Muslim sect, which is a minority in the kingdom. The government executed the cleric along with 46 others accused of terrorism-related charges.

The last time someone from the royal family was executed for murder was in 1975, when Prince Faisal bin Musaid was beheaded for assassinating King Faisal, as The New York Times reported. A few years later, a princess and her husband were executed after being accused of adultery.

Saudi Arabia's royal family members collect monthly stipends, and some are politically powerful and wealthy, but only a handful hold national government positions. The prince who was executed on Tuesday was from a prominent family branch, but that did not affect his prosecution and punishment, another family member told the Times via telephone.

"The king has always said that there is no difference in the law between princes and others," Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said, "and I think that this is clear manifestation of the reality of that fact."

Material from Reuters was included in this report.

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