RIYADH // A Saudi firing squad yesterday executed in public seven men convicted of armed robbery despite appeals by rights groups that their lives be spared, the interior ministry and a witness said.
The seven were sentenced to death in 2009 for crimes committed in 2005 and 2006 when human rights groups said some were younger than 18.
The men, from Asir Province in the south of Saudi Arabia, had been due to die last week but were granted a stay of execution while authorities reviewed their case.
They were convicted of theft, including armed robbery, the Interior Ministry said. Human rights group Amnesty International and the mens' families have said the robberies included one at a jewellery store.
A witness told AFP by telephone that "the execution was "at a public square in Abha," adding that the defendants were "shot dead" and not beheaded as is customary in the kingdom.
Human rights activists in Saudi Arabia also said the seven were executed by firing squad.
Executions in Saudi Arabia, which applies a strict interpretation of Sharia, are generally carried out by beheading but media reports this week said authorities were considering using firing squads due to a shortage of executioners.
Relatives of the men told Reuters last week they had been forced to confess to unsolved crimes, in addition to the armed robbery they had carried out.
Amnesty said the men later retracted a confession which they said had been obtained through torture, without giving details of the confession.
"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.
"The charges against all seven persons were allegedly fabricated and all seven were convicted following unfair trials," three separate UN human rights investigators said in a statement on Tuesday.
In January, King Abdullah said he had full confidence in the kingdom's justice system after the United Nations voiced concern over the trial of a Sri Lankan woman who had been executed.
The Interior Ministry named the seven men as Sarhan Al Mushaikh, Saeed Al Amri, Ali Al Shehri, Nasser Al Qahtani, Saeed Al Shahrani, Abdulaziz Al Amri and Ali Al Qahtani and said they were part of a gang responsible for crimes including armed robbery and theft.
"By the grace of God, the security authorities were able to apprehend the perpetrators" whose sentence to death was "a punishment" and "to deter others", the ministry said.
"I've lost faith in the judiciary and the political establishment," said a family friend who asked not to be identified.
A group of relatives and friends of the men went to the royal court last week to seek a retrial or pardon from the king, arguing they had been denied proper access to legal representation and their crime did not warrant execution.
The men were granted a stay of execution but were executed eight days later. They were shot at 6am on Wednesday in Abha, the capital of Asir, one of the least developed parts of the country.
A prominent Saudi lawyer and supporter of efforts spearheaded by King Abdullah to reform the judiciary by standardising sentencing and retraining sharia judges, defended the executions.
"We are in a society where we used to leave our shops open and go to pray ... because we were sure nobody would come and steal our stuff. So to have an organised criminal group come and do such a thing, we don't like it," he said.
The lawyer said death sentences were reviewed by an appeal court, the high court and the king's office before the sentence was implemented.
"They don't just do the paperwork. No, they review the judgment," he said.
* Agence France-Presse and Reuters