A Saudi firing squad on Wednesday executed in public seven men convicted of armed robbery despite last-minute appeals by rights groups that their lives be spared, the interior ministry and a witness said.
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 by 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 told AFP by telephone 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.
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.
Amnesty said two of the men -- Shahri and Shahrani -- "are believed to have been juveniles at the time of the alleged crime."
According to local news website sabq.org, the men were aged between 20 and 24 when the executions were carried out.
"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.
They had been scheduled to die on March 5, but their executions were postponed for a week.
France also condemned the executions, pointing out that the execution of convicts who were minors at the time of their crimes is contrary to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Riyadh has ratified.
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Three UN human rights experts on Tuesday had likewise urged Saudi Arabia to halt the executions, saying the defendants had allegedly been convicted on the basis of trumped-up charges and flawed trials.
"I reiterate that any death sentence undertaken in contravention of a state's international obligations is tantamount to an arbitrary execution, and is unlawful," said the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns.
And the UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez, expressed "deep concern" over the torture allegations.
This "is also in breach of the government's international obligation under the convention against torture that explicitly forbids the use of all forms of torture," he said.
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 because of a shortage of executioners.
Local Al-Yawm daily 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."
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.
Wednesday's executions bring to 26 the number of people put to death in Saudi Arabia so far this year.
In 2012, the kingdom executed 76 people, according to an AFP tally 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, or Islamic law.