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As countries across the globe observe the World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10 October 2020, detention centers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are crowded with prisoners facing the threat of death at any moment. Although it is difficult to ascertain precise numbers for those threatened with execution, ESOHR has tallied 53 cases of detainees facing the death penalty at various stages of prosecution. Most of them fall into the category of political prisoners. Moreover, ESOHR believes that there are also hundreds of people in criminal prisons threatened with execution, most of them on drug charges.
World Day Against the Death Penalty 2020 focuses on the right to legal representation for all individuals who may face the death penalty. On this occasion, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, affirms that, without access to effective legal representation (either male or female) during arrest, detention, trial, and post-trial, due process cannot be guaranteed. “In a capital case, the consequences that can arise from a lack of effective legal representation can be nothing less than the difference between life and death.”
ESOHR has found that the government of Saudi Arabia systematically violates the right to legal representation by preventing detainees from obtaining a lawyer for days, months, or years. In some cases, detainees are denied their right to self-defense until, or even after, the death penalty is handed down. Both the Public Prosecution and the Law of Criminal Procedure affirm that the accused has the right to have his representative or lawyer present during his investigation and that “the investigator may not prevent the representative or the lawyer from attending, provided that he does not intervene in the investigation except with the permission of the investigator.” Yet, in reality, detainees are deprived of contact with a lawyer during the investigation, and a lawyer is not appointed until after the trial hearings have begun.
The official Saudi apparatus, including the Public Prosecution and the Presidency of State Security, makes exceptions, manipulates, and disregards the laws in order to deprive the accused of this right. According to official newspapers, in most instances within the Public Prosecution, “the relevant investigator expands Article 70, specifically the lawyer’s intervention, to consider the lawyer’s very presence an intervention; consequently, the lawyer is not present with the accused.”
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia uses the counterterrorism law to justify depriving the right of detainees to legal representation. Article 20 of the law allows suspects to be detained incommunicado for up to 90 days. In addition, Article 27 allows the high court to hear from witnesses and experts without the defendant or his lawyer present.
This law deprives detainees of their right to self-defense. In the case of the minor Mohammed Essam al-Faraj, for whom the Public Prosecution sought the death penalty, over three years have passed since his arrest on 30 June 2017, and he was denied a lawyer during the period of arrest and investigation. At the time of writing of this report, al-Faraj still has no lawyer as his trial begins.
ESOHR has also observed lawyers being denied access to legal documents and having their work obstructed in such a way that prevents them from adequately defending detainees as needed in cases where the court has handed down the death penalty. In the case of Abbas al-Hassan, who was executed in April 2019, he was not able to obtain a lawyer until after the start of his trial. At that point, the lawyers did not have sufficient time or the necessary assistance to defend him, and in December 2016, al-Hassan was sentenced to death.
In the case of Ali al-Nimr, who has a final death sentence, he was not allowed to contact his lawyer during his arrest and trial. As a result, his lawyer was not able to effectively defend him.
ESOHR has also monitored the case of a Jordanian citizen, Hussein Abu al-Khair, who was sentenced to death on drug-related charges. He has not had a lawyer for the duration of his detention since 2014, despite having the death sentence issued against him twice.
Despite the recent promises to minimize the use of the death penalty and abolish it against minors, the lack of fairness in the courts and the bloody course of recent years undermine any possible guarantee for their lives.
Amid the lack of transparency in the official handling of death penalty cases, it is unlikely that the true numbers of detainees facing death can be determined. However, ESOHR has monitored 53 cases in which detainees face the death penalty, the majority of whom are political detainees only.
On 23 January 2015, King Salman bin Abdulaziz took power after the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Three days later, the first execution of a Saudi citizen was carried out. The bloody years that have followed have placed the reign of King Salman atop the records in Saudi history in terms of numbers of executions.
Through the end of 2015, the king had approved 154 executions of Saudis and foreigners, despite criticism of the nature of the trials and the lack of fair conditions.
The Saudi government kicked off 2016 with the mass execution of 47 people. Among those executed on January 2nd were Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an advocate for social justice, and two young men, Mohammed al-Shuyukh and Mohammed al-Suweimel. The mass execution also involved four children: Ali al-Farraj, Amin al-Ghamdi, Mustafa Abkar, and Mishaal al-Farraj. ESOHR has documented numerous violations having occurred during their trials, including subjecting detainees to ill treatment and torture and depriving them of their right to self-defense. By the end of 2016, King Salman had signed off on the implementation of 154 death sentences.
On 21 June 2017, Mohammed bin Salman was appointed Crown Prince. During this year, the Saudi government carried out 146 executions. Among them were four political executions in July 2017, against Yousef al-Musheikhs, Amjad al-Moebed, Mahdi al-Sayegh, and Zaher al-Basri, whose charges included protesting and demonstrating.
On 5 April 2018, the Crown Prince promised, in an interview with Time magazine, to reduce the death penalty as much as possible. Nevertheless, 2018 ended with 147 executions, a higher number than the previous year.
In 2019, a year after bin Salman’s promise, the Saudi government carried out a second mass execution of 37 people. Among those put to death were children, prisoners of conscience, and those with a documented deprivation of a fair trial. By the end of 2019, 185 people had been beheaded, the highest number in the history of Saudi Arabia.
In 2020, official Saudi entities issued statements about the death penalty, but so far there have been no actions on the ground supporting these statements.
In April 2020, the official Human Rights Commission published a royal order abolishing all ta’zir [discretionary] death penalties against people under the age of 18, and amending all sentences to comply with the Law on Juveniles that stipulates that the maximum penalty shall be no more than ten years in prison.
In July 2020, a member of the Shura Council recommended abolishing the death penalty from all ta’zir punishments, in favor of implementing hudud punishments in accordance with Islamic law and its interpretations as followed in Saudi Arabia.
On 26 August, after the implementation of the royal order, the Human Rights Commission announced a review of the death penalties issued against three minors: Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher.
Amid all these statements made throughout 2020, the Saudi government put to death a minor, Abdul Mohsen al-Ghamdi, despite social media appeals to reduce the sentence or at least to delay it until after the end of the Coronavirus crisis sweeping the world.
Reality versus claims
Despite the official public relations campaign citing changes in handling the death penalty issue, and amid the debate around ending the death penalty against minors, the Saudi government has taken no formal steps. The final death penalties issued against four minors have not changed, and the Public Prosecution continues to seek the death penalty for nine minors.
Moreover, numerous detainees continue to face the death penalty on charges related to expression of opinion and political positions, such as Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, researcher Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, Sheikh Awad al-Qarni, and Dr. Ali al-Omri. While ESOHR is not able to ascertain the current number of individuals who face execution on drug charges, which are not considered among the most serious offenses under international law, it has documented the case of a Jordanian, Hussein Abu al-Khair. These cases include blatant violations of justice, including torture and depriving detainees of their right to self-defense. In the case of Abu al-Khair, he was not able to obtain a lawyer during his trial; Sheikh Salman al-Ouda was subjected to enforced disappearance and torture; Dr. al-Omri was tortured; and the Saudi judiciary is still stalling the case of al-Qarni and al-Maliki, even though three years have passed since their arrest.
On World Day Against the Death Penalty, ESOHR believes that King Salman’s six years of rule have demonstrated increasing brutality in which many have been killed, including those put to death in retaliation for their activism and those who did not obtain even the minimum standards of fair trials, most notably the right to self-defense.
Despite official promotion of statements regarding the death penalty, anxiety and grief still hang over families amid Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of a policy of impunity that protects those responsible for the torture and violations that fall upon the victims of execution and help manufacture unjust death sentences against them.
On World Day Against the Death Penalty, ESOHR asserts that it is impossible to have confidence in any official Saudi statements or promises that are not accompanied by the immediate release of those arbitrarily detained and the overturning of death sentences based on unfair trials or non-serious offenses. ESOHR also stresses the importance of compensating families who have arbitrarily lost their loved ones and their right to bury them.