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Saudi Arabia: remains wedded to the cult of execution

The Death Penalty Annual Report 2017

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2017 was a very volatile year for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with widespread economic and political changes, which have been labelled by the Saudi government as ‘reforms’.  However, despite the promise of reforms, Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record continues to plunge into deeper crisis with severe restriction on expression and association, and waves of arbitrary arrests. Amidst Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights landscape, the use of capital punishment remains a highly contentious issue, particularly where it violates the non-derivable right to life. Employed as a tool of terror by the authorities, the irreversible nature of capital punishment means that this particular violation must be reported on, particularly when a lack of due process or the use of execution as a political tool is a key concern.

Globally, the international community is moving towards abolition of the death penalty. However, whilst capital punishment is not fully outlawed, for those states that chooses to retain it, its use remains heavily restricted under international law. As retentions state, Saudi Arabia maintains excessive and extensive use of the death penalty.


Facts and figures
Despite a global trend towards abolition of the death penalty, Saudi Arabia remains one of the top executioners in the world. A revival of the use of capital punishment within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has led to an upsurge in executions in the last few years, a trend which intensifies and coincided with King Salman bin Abdul Aziz ascension to throne in 2015.

In 2017 a total of 146 individuals were executed. This figure is only slightly lower than the previous year (8 executions less), but nonetheless remains an exceptionally high execution rate. Such a level of executions has not been witnessed since the mid 1990s. Of those 146 individuals, 90 were Saudi nationals and 56 were foreign nationals.

According to a list compiled by ESOHR, there are currently 31 detainees who are at risk of imminent execution after exhausting all legal remedies, whilst, a further 10 individuals have either received their initial death sentence or are awaiting the outcome of an appeal, and therefore have still not exhausted all legal remedies.

Execution rate from 2013 to 2017


Patterns in the Death Penalty

Use of the death sentence for non-violent crimes and politically motivated death sentences.
International human rights law provisions clearly articulate that capital punishment can only be implemented ‘for the most serious of crimes’.  The most serious of crimes have been interpreted as a restrictive term, relating to intentional crimes with lethal or grave consequences, and which does not include drug related crimes, political offences or those related to non-violent crimes.
Despite this narrow reading of ‘most serious of crimes, 2017 death penalty statistics in Saudi Arabia show that at least 64 individuals were executed for crimes which do not meet the category of ‘most serious’, of which 60 individuals were executed on drugs related charges.
Four others individuals were executed after a very unfair trial up political charges. In July 2017, Saudi Arabia executed four: Amjad al-Moaibid, Yusuf al-Mushaykhas, Zaher al-Basri and Mahdi al-Sayegh, following unfair trials these executions are politically motivated as these individuals were convicted based on protest related charges.

This reversion to the death penalty in recent years, has led to capital punishments being used as a highly politicised tool of state power, which has been particularly used to punish peaceful dissent. Such politically motivated executions were also witnessed in 2016, with Saudi Arabia highly controversial and unlawful execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr in January 2016.
The trend of politically motivated death sentences appears set to continue. In December 2017, Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court ratified a mass death sentence of 12 men, who were charged with ‘high treason’ after mass trial, where 32 men were accused of taking part in a spy ring for Iran.  Furthermore, in July 2017, a group of 14 individuals (including Munir Al-Adam, Abdullah Al-Turaif, Abdullah Al-Sareeh and Mujtaba Al-Suwaiket), who had been sentenced to death as part of a mass death ruling in 2016 on protest related charges, were transferred to Riyadh, in what is widely regarded as a signal of implementation of an execution order. These individuals remain at risk of imminent execution.
Also, in April 2017, the General Court in Hafr al-Batin sentenced Ahmad Freih al-Shammari to death after they found to have in his possession pictures of armed fighters with the caption “Arabian Peninsula Organisation”, as well as pictures of leading Al-Qa’ida figures. The court confirmed that it had obtained, at its request, three reports and letters from the Al-Amal Mental Health Complex in Dammam.  The first of these, dated June 23, 2016, stated that Ahmad bin Freih al-Shammari suffered from a personality disorder and drug dependency, and that he had a history of mental illness.

Patterns in the death penalty: capital punishment of minors.
According to international law a ‘Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age’.  Despite this prohibition on the execution of minors, at the end of 2017, there remain eight minors on death row: Ali Al-Nimr, Dawood Al-Marhoon, Abdullah Al-Zaher, AbdulKareem Al-Hawaj, Mojtaba Al-Sowaiket, Saeed Al-Skafi, Salman Al-Koraysh and Abdullah Al-Sareeh. All minors have exhausted all legal remedies and are at risk of execution at any moment.
With regards to three minor protestors, Ali Al-Nimr, Dawood Al-Marhoon, Abdullah Al-Zaher, In November 2016 ESOHR initiated an opinion from the UN working group for arbitrary detention for these individuals. These three Arab spring protestor’s, were tortured during detention and underwent grossly unfair trials. Based on the complaint submitted by ESOHR, the UN working group were of the opinion that:  ‘The deprivation of liberty of the three minors, being in contravention of articles 9, 10, 11, 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is arbitrary and falls within categories I, II and III.’

14 individuals had been sentenced to death
Despite prohibition on the execution of minors, at the end of 2017, there remain eight minors on death row



The judicial system: Unfair Trials

The irreversible nature of the death penalty means that it can only implemented only if strict procedural safeguards have been strictly observed, and this extreme ‘penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court’. Human rights case law also clarifies that any death sentence arising from an unfair trial is void and unlawful.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, there is absolutely no guarantee of procedural safeguards to ensure a fair trial, in fact in many of the cases documented, death penalties were issued after grossly unfair trials.
Such unfair trials lead to the continuous issuance of death sentences regardless of the violations the victims were exposed to, even if torture was used to extract confessions. On July 2017, the Specialized Criminal Court ratified death sentences against detainees accused of spying, despite the serious lack in the pre-trial rights documented by the organization. Some of the detainees were unable get their rights of legal counsel until only after the first session, whilst lawyers thereafter couldn’t undertake their role effectively in defending their clients due to obstacles placed against them, leading to judgements issued in some cases without a defence brief even being submitted.

Haidar Al-Layf

In January 2017, the specialized criminal court issued a first instance death sentence against detainee Haidar Al-Layf, after an unfair trial that lacked justice and procedural safeguards. During his detention, Haidar was put in solitary confinement and exposed to torture; as well as being prevented from hiring a lawyer until after the third session of the trial.

Hussein Abu Al-Khair

Furthermore, according to the organization’s monitoring of executions against those accused of drugs, there was a clear lack of justice and procedural safeguards, such as in the case of Hussain Abu Al-khair. These flaws included the right to access a lawyer upon arrest, the right to contact with the outside world, in addition to the right of innocence before being proven guilty and the right of foreigners to access translator.


Use of torture

Although Saudi Arabia ratified the convention against torture and other inhumane and degrading treatment in 1997, Saudi prisons still exercise torture with the aim of eliciting specific forced confessions. According to the organisation’s monitoring, several death sentences issued by the Specialized Criminal Court were based on confessions extracted under torture. In May 2017, the Saudi judiciary ratified death sentences against 14 prisoners including minors; this comes despite a number of them informing the judge that they were subjected to torture, cruel treatment and coercion for confessions. However, the judiciary refused to acknowledge their allegations of neither torture nor the detainee’s demands for questioning the investigators.
In addition to the convention against torture, Saudi Arabia signed also in the UN convention of the rights of the child, and despite this, children were included in acts torture and cruel treatment. In this regard, the organization had identified torture cases of children, of those 7 who had been subjected to torture and are facing death penalties.
Additionally, ESOHR has documented the implementation of death sentences during 2017, in which victims were accused according to coerced statements extracted under torture, including the mass execution of Zaher Al Basri, Youssef Al Moushaikhes, Amjad Al-Moaibed and Mahdi Al-saegh.


Reaction of the International Community

In 2017, during the Human Rights Council (sessions 34, 35 & 36), Saudi Arabia faced international criticism for human rights violations. During the 34th session, held in March 2017, the Czech Republic requested Saudi Arabia to stop executions practices. Also, France expressed its deep concern from Saudi Arabia’s use of this punishment.
In June 2017, in the thirty fifth session of the Human Rights Council, Switzerland called upon Saudi Arabia for an immediate cessation of executions including children.

In September 2017, during the thirty sixth’s session, Iceland denounced Saudi executions, which reached 350 since it became a member in the Human Rights Council for the first time in 2006.
In July 2017, Canada expressed its concern from the increasing violence in eastern region of Saudi Arabia, as a result of the military attack on Awamiyah city. Also, it emphasized that the government must abide with international law, especially with regards to the death sentences issued against 14 young men.

On March 8, 2017, the High Commissioner “Zaid Bin Raad Hussein” submitted his annual report to the Human Rights Council, which discussed the death penalty, mentioning that there are four countries responsible for approximately ninety percent of executions worldwide, including Saudi Arabia.

On 6 February 2017, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, sent a letter to Saudi Arabia regarding three minors (Ali Al-Nimr, Dawood Almarhoon, and Abdullah Al-Zaher) who are facing execution, in which they called upon them to take the necessary measures to protect them from the death penalty and release them immediately. In their opinion, they expressed their deep alarm that the three minors were prosecuted and sentenced to death based on terrorism legislation. The opinion considered that the three individuals had been deprived of their liberty for four years and that there was no legal basis for their arbitrary detention. The Panel also acknowledged that the arrest of the three minors happened as a result of their participation in peaceful demonstrations. As the working group pointed out, Saudi Arabia’s response to the complaint did not contain any evidence that proves that the detainees were not subjected to torture.

Saudi Statements in International Forums

During 2017, Saudi Arabia repeated attempts to justify its execution, including before the Human Rights Council in March 2017 and during the discussion of the high commissioner’s report, in which the Saudi delegation responded claiming that the Government had continued to promote and protect universal human rights and was committed to the principles of Islamic law. The kingdom also said that the use of the death penalty in the country was only for ‘the most serious crimes’ and in accordance with the rule of law.

In addition, in September 2017, the Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Abdul Aziz Al-Wasel, submitted an amendment to a draft resolution on the death penalty, which affirms the principle of the sovereignty of states in choosing the appropriate laws and regulations in relation to the crimes committed on their lands.
Saudi Arabia attempts to give a legal character to implementation of death sentences against the detainees, but this does not apply to reality and does not comply with the international obligations of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia whitewashes human rights violations in front of the international community.


Expectations for 2018- Outlook is grim.

Disabled protestor Munir Al-Adam at risk of imminent execution

Within the first four months of 2018, executions in Saudi Arabia seem to be heading toward the same pattern as the year of 2017. By the end of April, Saudi Arabia had executed 47 people, while dozens continue to face the death penalty, including children, and who are accused of crimes that are not considered to be the most serious crimes according to international law.

Saudi Arabia continues to issue and execute death sentences, ignoring international laws and countries statements which demanded compliance with its commitment.

(1) Number of persons executed in 2017, by nationality
(2) Percantage according to the charge type


Related ESOHR reports in 2017

لجنة إتفاقية حقوق الطفل بالأمم المتحدة تطالب السعودية بإيقاف فوري لإعدام ٦ قاصرين وإلغاء التمييز ضد الفتيات
السعودية تحكم بإعدام حيدر آل ليف بإعترافات منتزعة بالتعذيب ومحاكمة افتقدت لشروط العدالة

Saudi: Fears heighten over the fate of 28 citizens who have been accused of espionage on behalf of Iran. They have been transferred to the terror court after almost three years since their initial detention

المفوض السامي لحقوق الإنسان ينتقد الإعدامات في السعودية، والوفد الرسمي يرد بخطاب مضلل بعيد عن الواقع
جمهورية التشيك تدعو حكومة السعودية لتعليق كافة أحكام الإعدام
تجاوزا للقمع الحكومي الذي يخنق الجتمع المدني، البرلمان الأوروبي يعقد ندوة لمناقشة الإعدام في السعودية
فرنسا تبدي مخاوفها من إستمرار السعودية في إستخدام عقوبة الإعدام، وتدعو إلى توقف الدول عن ممارسة التعذيب
بلجيكا تنتقد في مجلس حقوق الإنسان إنتهاكات السعودية بحق النشطاء وتحذر من أحكام الإعدام

الحكومة السعودية تحرم الشاب محمد الشيوخ من حقه في الحياة بعد محاكمة غير عا��لة وتعذيب شديد

سويسرا تطالب السعودية بالوقف الفوري لعمليات الإعدام التي تطال أطفالا

‏كندا تبدي قلقها من تصاعد العنف شرق السعودية وتؤكد على الحكومة الإلتزام بالقانون الدولي وتعارض إعدام ١٤ شابا
إتحاد طلاب المملكة المتحدة يدعو حكومته للتدخل لوقف عمليات إعدام بحق 14 شابا في السعودية
Saudi Arabia: Execution of disabled man imminent as authorities ignore all local and international appeals (CRPD and UN experts)
السعودية بإعدام زاهر البصري: لامانع من الإعدام حينما تكن الأقوال منتزعة بالتعذيب والتهم غير جسيمة
ريبريف تدشن حملة دولية تهدف إلى دعم المعتقلين المهددين بإعدام وشيك في السعودية
الإتحاد الأميركي للمعلمين ينضم للتحركات الدولية المطالبة بإيقاف إعدام القاصرين والمتظاهرين في السعودية
Following torture and unfair trials, Saudi Arabia executes 4 on protest related charges without charging them with any serious offence

على الأمم المتحدة والإتحاد الأوروبي ودول حليفة للرياض التعليق على استخدام السعودية أسمهم لشرعنة إعدام أكثر من 30 سجينا

Saudi Arabia ignores United Nation demands and increases the fears for Abdul Kareem Al-Hawaj life.
أيسلندا تندد بإعدامات السعودية أمام مجلس حقوق الإنسان: 350 عملية إعدام منذ حصولها على عضوية المجلس
منظمات حقوقية تكسر محاولات الحكومة السعودية فرض الصمت وتثير ملف الإعدامات أمام مجلس حقوق الإنسان
السعودية تتستر على مُعَّذِبين، وتحكم بقتل ضحايا أُنتزعت أقوالهم بالتعذيب
ندوة في مجلس حقوق الإنسان بجنيف ناقشت الإعدام في السعودية واستعرضت جرائم العملية العسكرية على مدينة العوامية

السعودية تراوغ بمبدأ سيادة الدول للمضي في تطبيق عقوبة الإعدام وانتهاك معاهدات دولية
Saudi Arabia beheaded 351 people in 13 years based on drug charges, which are not classified as a serious offense according to International Law

الإتحاد الأميركي للمعلمين يتبنّى قضية 14 شاباً -بينهم أطفال- محكومين بالإعدام في السعودية ويعلن قرارا لحمايتهم
التعذيب في السعودية: نهج لا يستثني الأطفال

السعودية: محاكمات إعدام بقضايا مخدرات تفتقد العدالة ويمارس فيها التعذيب
Saudi Arabia: A Poor record in dealing with United Nations communications requesting it to respect the right to life and to halt the execution of children and peaceful dissents.

2011 demonstrations from the town of Awamiyah, Saudi Arabia. The photo depicts child protestor Ali al-Nimr, who has been sentenced to death. Muhammad al-Zinadi, for whom the prosecuter demand a death sentence, was later sentenced to nine years imprisonment.

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