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Hassan Salman al-Radwan, 20, was working out in a gym when he was arrested and jailed by Saudi police guards. He’s remembered as someone who used to go to the gym every day, and loved sports and horses.handout/Handout

Hassan Salman al-Radwan was working out in a gym when he was arrested and jailed by Saudi police eight years ago for taking part in a public protest. He was 20 years old at the time. On March 12, he was one of 81 men killed in the largest mass execution in Saudi Arabia’s modern history.

As is the case with most executions in the country, the men’s families were not given advance warning or notified afterward. Mr. al-Radwan’s loved ones only found out after his name and photo began to be quietly circulated online.

A relative of Mr. al-Radwan who now lives in Canada told The Globe and Mail that none of his family in Saudi Arabia are allowed to speak about the executions, or receive condolences by text or in person, without risking arrest. The Globe is not identifying the relative because he fears retribution.

He says he vividly remembers his last meeting with Mr. al-Radwan, describing him as someone who used to go to the gym every day, and loved sports and horses. Their final moments together were spent cooking a traditional meal outside and playing dominoes.

His voice breaks as he describes his surprise at the phone message a family friend in Saudi Arabia left him upon hearing that her son was another of the men executed.

She shouldn’t have left the recording, he says, because it’s too dangerous.

He plays the recording. “Why didn’t you tell me he was killed? Why didn’t you tell me I’m not going to see him again?” the mother cries in Arabic.

Sixteen more executions have taken place in Saudi Arabia since March 12. The total so far in the first three months of 2022 far exceeds the 67 executions reported in the kingdom in all of 2021 and the 27 in 2020.

According to Saudi Arabia’s official news agency, most of the men executed on March 12 were sentenced for “multiple heinous crimes,” including affiliation with “terrorist organizations hostile to the kingdom” and “practising a deviant ideology” – a euphemism for Shia dissidents, who, as a religious minority, have long faced systemic discrimination and violence from the government.

Multiple Saudi activists told The Globe that most of those killed in the mass execution were arrested for taking part in pro-democracy protests in the eastern province of al-Qatif, which has the largest concentration of Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia.

“The vast majority of the individuals executed had been killed in secrecy and their cases weren’t known to NGOs monitoring Saudi’s death row,” Zaki Sarraf, a caseworker for Reprieve, a human-rights organization in Britain, said in an interview.

Human Rights Watch reported that 41 of the men belonged to the country’s Shia Muslim minority. “Many Saudi Shia are serving lengthy sentences, are on death row, or have been executed for protest-related charges following patently unfair trials,” the organization said in a report on March 15.

Mr. al-Radwan’s relative also used to take part in anti-government demonstrations before leaving Saudi Arabia as a political refugee. He finds some solace through a friend, another Saudi dissident now in Canada who had two family members among the 81 killed in the mass execution: Abdullah Naji al-Ammar was 19 and Hassan Ali al-Sheikh was 20 when they were arrested in 2014 on charges related to “destabilizing security, sowing discord and unrest and causing riot and chaos.”

Both were high-school students who had tried to apply for university but were rejected because they were Shia Muslims from al-Qatif, their relative in Canada said. The Globe is not identifying him because he fears retribution.

Hamzah al-Shakhouri, an opposition activist now based in New Zealand, told The Globe he lost his younger brother, Mohammed Alawi al-Shakhouri, 37, and his cousin, Asaad Makki, 38, in the mass execution.

“My brother took the lead in several demonstrations, chanting slogans in loudspeakers and calling for basic human rights. Him and my cousin also participated in raising banners, slogans and pictures of young detainees who were still behind bars without any trial. The slogans denounced dictatorship and oppression in Saudi Arabia.”

The first time Mr. al-Shakhouri’s family visited his brother in jail was six months after his arrest. It was clear he had been tortured. “He’d lost all of his teeth.”

His cousin’s wife collapsed upon hearing the news of her husband’s execution. “She is suffering psychologically from this trauma, especially because she has a five-year-old son,” he said.

“These are criminal rulers who are no more than blood-soaked monsters.”

The continued executions of political dissidents in Saudi Arabia is taking place against a backdrop of liberalizing social and economic conditions, which are tied to Vision 2030. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman unrolled this blueprint in 2016 with the aim of opening up the country to investors and tourists from around the world.

Saudi Arabia remains, after the United States, the top export destination for Canadian-made military equipment, in large part owing to a nearly $15-billion deal in 2014 to sell light armoured vehicles (LAVs), many equipped with guns or cannons, to Riyadh.

The deal would create and sustain more than 3,000 jobs a year for 14 years and would benefit more than 500 Canadian companies, the government and arms manufacturer General Dynamics Land Systems said that year.

The contract also includes training Saudi forces on the LAVs, according to a report last year by rights groups Amnesty International Canada and Project Ploughshares.

The report alleges that Canada is not honouring all of its obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), an international agreement, which it became a party to in 2019. The ATT regulates global trade in conventional arms and seeks to eradicate illicit trade and diversion of them. Yet Canada continues to export armoured vehicles, as well as other arms, to Saudi Arabia despite extensively documented domestic human-rights violations there and Riyadh’s role in the continuing war in Yemen. More than 150,000 people have died in that conflict.

The Amnesty/Project Ploughshares report called on Ottawa to revoke existing arms export permits to Saudi Arabia.

An investigation by The Globe in 2016 found that Canadian-made vehicles were being used against Saudi citizens in the province of al-Qatif. A federal probe two years later, however, concluded that the armoured vehicles were being used in a manner that was consistent with the terms of the arms export licence.

Christelle Chartrand, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, told The Globe last week that “respect for human rights is enshrined in Canada’s export controls legislation.”

When asked if Ottawa’s position on selling arms to Riyadh had changed in light of the mass executions, Ms. Chartrand said: “All export permit applications for goods and technology – including those destined to Saudi Arabia – are assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the items would be used in a manner consistent with the Arms Trade Treaty and Canada’s domestic legislation.

“The government of Canada continues to monitor developments in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the surrounding region, and will not hesitate to take appropriate action should credible evidence come to light regarding the misuse of Canadian controlled goods or technology.”

According to the government’s last report on exports of military goods from Canada, Ottawa has yet to deny a permit application from Saudi Arabia on the grounds that it violates international human-rights laws.

Mr. al-Radwan’s relative, meanwhile, believes Canadian-made equipment is being used against peaceful dissidents – citizens who are demanding equal treatment, including opportunities for employment and admission to universities. He is calling on Ottawa to completely stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia to ensure they are not used against protesters.

This is not asking a lot, he said, adding that his views represent a common outlook among the protesters in al-Qatif province. He said he lived in Saudi Arabia for more than 30 years and heard hateful speech every Friday when congregants met for weekly communal prayers at their mosques.

He asks people to imagine how safe they would feel if they heard clerics say it was permissible under Islamic laws to take the money of Shia Muslims, to take their wives and their children, and to kill their men.

He said the Saudi regime regularly terrorized protesters by sending in armoured vehicles equipped with guns and shooting indiscriminately, especially at people who were holding cameras.

Mr. al-Radwan’s relative said he no longer wants to live under the Saudi government, adding that he prefers to die than to live under the regime. He said that living in Canada has left him feeling deeply grateful – but conflicted. The deployment of armoured vehicles to al-Qatif leaves him angry because those arms are going to a government that is killing his family, he said.

The two Saudi dissidents continue to mourn in isolation, along with other relatives of the executed prisoners. Both say they face great risk in sharing memories of their loved ones and criticizing the government. But they are unlikely to ever return to Saudi Arabia.

They cannot go back because they are sure they would be jailed and tortured to death, Mr. al-Radwan’s relative says. His family would not receive his body when he dies, he says, just as no family member or rights organization knows where the bodies of the 81 executed men lie.

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