A Saudi firing squad executed seven men convicted of armed robbery, in public on Wednesday, despite last-minute appeals by rights groups that their lives be spared, the interior ministry and a witness said. This brings to the number of people put to death in Saudi Arabia so far this year 26.
The condemned men were convicted of "forming a gang that carried out several armed robberies and thefts with the help of other people," the ministry said in a statement published on the official SPA news agency.
They were executed "as a punishment to them and to deter others" from carrying out similar crimes, said SPA, adding that their fellow-robbers had been sentenced to various jail terms and lashes.
A witness said that "the execution was implemented a while ago at a public square in Abha", adding that the defendants were "shot dead" and not beheaded as is customary in the kingdom.
The announcement came soon after Amnesty International released a statement renewing calls on the Saudi authorities to halt the executions.
They "look set to be shot on Wednesday morning," said Amnesty, which described the executions as "sheer brutality."
The seven men - Sarhan Al Mashaikh, Saeed Al Zahrani, Ali Al Shahri, Nasser Al Qahtani, Saeed Al Shahrani, Abdulaziz Al Amri and Ali Al Qahtani - were charged with organising a criminal group, armed robbery and raiding and breaking into jewellery stores in 2005, and sentenced to death in 2009.
International rights groups had protested that the men - now aged between 20 to 24 years old according to news website sabq.org - were condemned for crimes committed when they were juveniles.
"It is a bloody day when a government executes seven people on the grounds of 'confessions' obtained under torture, submitted at a trial where they had no legal representation or recourse to appeal," said Amnesty's MENA director Philip Luther.
They claimed their relatives were also "threatened with torture if they withdrew their 'confessions'," said Amnesty.
They had been scheduled to die on March 5, but their executions were postponed for a week.
Executions in Saudi Arabia, which applies a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law, are generally carried out by beheading but media reports said authorities were considering using firing squads due to lack of executioners.
Local daily Al-Yawm reported that the kingdom has formed a specialised committee to study the "possibility of replacing beheadings by the sword with firing squads as this is not against sharia (Islamic law)."
This is due to "the lack of beheaders who may sometimes take long to arrive at the execution site from other regions causing confusion," it said.
Also on Wednesday, authorities executed another national, Fada al-Subaie in the southwestern Mecca region, after he was convicted of murdering a fellow Saudi, SPA reported. It did not specify the method of his execution.
In 2012, the kingdom executed 76 people, based on official figures. The US-based Human Rights Watch put the number at 69.
Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery and drug trafficking are all punishable by death under Saudi Arabia's strict version of sharia.