RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has postponed the execution of seven men convicted of armed robbery committed when most of them were juveniles while the royal court looks into a request for a retrial, relatives and family friends said on Tuesday.
The seven were sentenced to death in 2009 for robbing a jewellery store in the southern province of Asir in 2006, but Amnesty International quoted the men as saying they were tortured into confessions.
"They have since said they were severely beaten, denied food and water, deprived of sleep, forced to remain standing for 24 hours and then forced to sign 'confessions'," the London-based rights group said in a statement.
A spokesman for Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry was not immediately able to comment on the case. The Riyadh government has repeatedly denied that the kingdom practices torture.
Family friends and a relative also said that the men were juveniles at the time of the robbery and had been coerced into confessing to other unsolved crimes they had nothing to do with.
"The investigation was marred by many violations that distorted the trial," Mohammad al-Rabhan, a family friend of some of those sentenced to death told Reuters by telephone.
"We are not saying that they are not guilty. We are saying that the punishment for the crimes does not deserve the death penalty," he added.
Dheeb al-Qahtani, a brother of one of those sentenced to death, confirmed that Asir Governor Prince Faisal bin Khaled had ordered the stay of execution.
"We hope that the Abu Miteb (King Abdullah) would order their release," he said by telephone from Rawdat Khureem, where he said some 200 relatives and tribal leaders were gathered to press the king for the retrial.
Amnesty has said that King Abdullah had ratified their death sentences in February. Rabhan said family and friends of the victims hope the royal court would order a new investigation into the case soon.
The kingdom, which follows a strict version of sharia, or Islamic law, has been criticised in the West for its high number of executions, inconsistencies in the application of the law, and its use of public beheading to carry out death sentences.
The last time the kingdom executed so many people at once was in October 2011, when eight Bangladeshi men were put to death for an armed robbery in which a guard was killed.
The seven are from Asir, one of the least developed parts of the kingdom that is the world's top oil exporter.
Relatives and friends said that a total of 30 people were tried for a series of crimes, including a string of robberies or jewellery stores in the area. Seven were sentenced to death, while the rest were given prison sentences or acquitted.
Saudi Arabia has executed 17 people so far this year, said Amnesty, compared to 82 in 2011 and a similar number last year.
Capital crimes resulting in the death sentence last year included murder, armed robbery, drug smuggling, sorcery and witchcraft.
In January, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed dismay at the beheading in Saudi Arabia of a Sri Lankan maid convicted of murdering a baby.
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a 2006 report that it was "deeply alarmed" at the imposition of capital punishment by Saudi judges for crimes committed before the age of 18.
In an interview carried by the Saudi Gazette last week, King Abdullah's son Prince Miteb said the monarch "does not like to see anybody in this situation (of being condemned to death)".
However, Miteb added that Abdullah views sharia as being "above everybody" and holds judges in high esteem.
In recent years the king, who turns 90 this year, has pushed for reform of Saudi Arabia's judiciary to make sentencing more standardised and improve training for judges, changes that have been fiercely contested by some conservative clerics.
He has also encouraged the families of murder victims to accept blood money instead of insisting on execution.
Reporting By Sami Aboudi; Editing by Angus McDowall and Mark Heinrich