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On the occasion of the World Day Against the Death Penalty, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) held a symposium entitled, “The Death Penalty in Saudi Arabia: Social Vision and Responsibility,” attended by several human rights advocates, activists and researchers from Saudi Arabia.
The symposium took place on October 11, 2019, at the Freedom and Democracy House in Berlin, and it highlighted the reality of the bloody rise in thedeath penalty rate and its politicization.
The vice president of ESOHR, Adel al-Saeed, opened the symposium by noting the violent increase in the number of executions carried out in Saudi Arabia since King Salman bin Abdulaziz took power in January 2015. He also pointed out that this situation is affecting new categories of people, such as opinion-makers and dissidents.
Al-Saeed explained that, from the beginning of 2019 through October 7, 2019, the Saudi government beheaded 164 people, surpassing the previous record set in 2015. He stressed that most of those put to death were charged with non-serious crimes, including 68 executions for drug charges and 37 for political charges. Six of these were minors.
Al-Saeed emphasized that most victims of political executions confirmed during their trials that their confessions were extracted under harsh torture, yet nevertheless their sentences were confirmed. He also noted that the ESOHR had previously analyzed several death penalty documents, showing that judges issued their sentences based on strict religious understandings and religious texts to give the sentences a religious veneer, thus proving false Bin Salman’s claims of combatting religious extremism.
After al-Saeed’s introduction, Sheikh Saeed al-Ghamdi, the director of the Arabian Peninsula Center for Research and Studies, discussed the abuses plaguing trials and sentences in Saudi Arabia, noting that fundamental aspects are in violation of Islamic law. Al-Ghamdi also explained that torture is practiced in all prisons, especially security and political prisons, which means that these sentences are to be rejected offhand.
In addition, al-Ghamdi discussed the issue of the age of majority, where there is non-Islamic jurisprudence that ignores differences in awareness and understanding and allows for the execution of individuals under the age of 18.
Al-Ghamdi elaborated on the issue of ta’zir penalties [discretionary penalty in Islamic law], explaining that the penalty is based on the judge’s discretion and, most importantly, must not be issued according to private or political passions or interests. Thus, the ta’zir penalty issued by the “ruler” is incorrect – a ta’zir penalty has limits and must be based on crime and disobedience.
Al-Ghamdi also referenced the anti-terrorism law allowing the death penalty for crimes such as criticizing the king, the crown prince, or state projects, noting that the law is itself a form of terrorism.
Dr. Hamza al-Hassan, a researcher specializing in Saudi affairs, noted that the subject of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia can be approached from different angles, legal, religious, etc. It is useful to view it from the political perspective, especially since executions are to a large degree political in nature rather than criminal.
Al-Hassan explained that states justify the death penalty as a way to maintain law and order and prevent crime, and he questioned why a regime might carry out politically-motivated executions. In response, a government might say that the goal is to maintain political order, protect the popular interest, or preserve national security; however, al-Hassan considers all these justifications unacceptable, especially coming from a problematic regimewhose legitimacy is in question because it does not derive from the consent of the people.
Likewise, al-Hassan generally believes that the death penalty does not usually produce the regime’s desired outcome, according to official statistics. He asserted that the death penalty for criminal cases such as drugs, for example, does not reduce the crime rate or deter crime, as claimed by the regime to justify the death penalty. Al-Hassan emphasized that the question that must be examined is the justifications for crime.
Al-Hassan asserted that this periodis worse than what preceded it for several reasons. In previous eras, kings refused to impose or carry out the death penalty in this way, despite the oppression that took place, such as forced disappearances and death by torture. He stated that this perspective changed after the Arab Spring experience, when the regime felt threatened by society crossing red lines.
Al-Hassan also asserted that major, political, and public executions are often evidence of a volatileregime that will go to the extreme of extrajudicial killing, street terrorism, and the like. This adds to the bloodthirsty nature of a ruler who resorts to violence and terror.
For his part, lawyer Sultan al-Abdali, the director of the Arabian Peninsula Center for the Protection of Freedoms, discussed the judicial system in Saudi Arabia, noting that the judiciary and judges in Saudi Arabia are legalizing bloodshed even though religion prohibits this. He describes torture killing and unlawful execution as a major calamity and considers the situation in Saudi Arabia a “national emergency,” stressing that the regime allows killing via a judiciary appointed and controlled by the king. Al-Abdali sees a further injustice in the regime’s procedure of retaining bodies and not allowing families to see them.
Al-Abdali noted that what is seen publicly is not the whole picture, stressing that there are secret killing operations in prisons, which is terrorism against citizens. The systems and courts supervised by the government (including the anti-terrorism law and its special courts) confirm that this system is terroristic, deadly, and bloodthirsty.
Yahya Assiri, the head of the ALQST human rights organization, noted that international law does not completely prohibit the death penalty, but seeks to codify it. Those calling for a complete end to the death penalty are a group of civil society organizations. Assiri asked whether we should call for the codification and reduction of the death penalty or demand its complete elimination. He noted that the high number of executions this year (more than 160, including three women) included 85 Saudis, followed by Pakistanis, Jordanians, and Yemenis, thus indicating that these operations target individuals of weaker nationalities.
Assiri pondered the reasons for the greater anger about executions carried out in Egypt on the part of people from Saudi Arabia, compared to the weaker response to execution in Saudi Arabia, responding that he thinks this is because most people believe that executions in Saudi Arabia are based on Islamic law, thus opposing them is akin to opposing the Shariah.
Assiri cited three examples of individuals charged with murder, each meeting a different fate, as evidence of the lack of justice in the application of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. The first example was a case he worked on with other organizations in 2013,involving a domestic worker from Sri Lanka who killed the lady of the house. Assiri explained that he called forher death penalty to be lifted because she had suffered numerous abuses prior to the crime and acted in self-defense at the time of the crime, and there were also legal violations involved inher trial, including lack of access to a translator and a lawyer, as well as other circumstances. Assiri noted that the campaign to lift her sentence was widely attacked, and they were accused of standing against the Shariah.
In the second case, a member of a famous tribe in Saudi Arabia killed someone. Many lawyers offered to defend him, and his trial became well-publicized, with many tribes intervening, in addition to those called princes of the blood, in order to raise donations to compensate the victim’s relatives.
In the third case, a member of the ruling familykilled someone, but King Salman, who was the Emir of Riyadh at the time, said that “our sword does not eat our flesh,” in a clear indication that retribution is not applied against the sons of the ruling family. Assiri also noted that in some cases others pay the price for the crimes of members of the ruling family, stressing that the disparity in the application of justice and retribution is actually a lack of justice. This also applies to the ta’zirpenalties, about which there are many debates.
For her part, human rights advocate Dr. Hessa al-Madi asserted that execution destroys the spirit. Although it is present in Islamic law, it is limited. Al-Madi suggested that the regime governed by the ruling family is a repressive system in which blood is easily spilled, considering that since King Salman bin Abdulaziz gave control to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the situation has worsened and become more bloody.
Al-Madi stressed that death sentences targeting prisoners of conscience who have not committed crimes are contrary to Saudi Arabia’s obligations and the treaties and conventions it has ratified. This includes the collective massacres in the country, such as the April 2019 massacre in which 37 people were killed, including children.
The Saudi human rights activist asserted that the Saudi authorities have not deterred and halted the brutality they practice; in addition to the executions, the authorities prevent the bodies from being handed over to the families. Al-Madibelieves that through these practices, the government is trying to send a message to citizens that it may arrest, execute, and prevent the burial of anyonewho disagrees with it. She called on activists abroad, human rights organizations, and the Human Rights Council to stand togetherstrongly to protect individuals who still face the death penalty.
The ESOHR has published a report on the occasion of the World Day Against the Death Penalty, documenting the reality of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of 2019, highlighting violations, and expressing concern for the lives of dozens threatened with this punishment.
Blessed be this country for you. Blessed be you with its victories and false honors. Blessed be your raised fists for many more years of continued humiliation under the banners. Blessedbe the open roads that gnaw at the hours of our days and steal our lives, and your actions that are not enough to make a living.
Add a new day to the days of your glory. Bless us with further disappointments.