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"The legal system of Saudi Arabia fails to provide basic fair trial guarantees, and the Saudi judiciary allows the royal family and other well-connected individuals to manipulate the system to their advantage," according to Flawed Justice: The Execution of `Abd al-Karim al-Naqshabandi, released today by Human Rights Watch

Drawing on the case of `Abd al-Karim al-Naqshabandi, a Syrian employee of a nephew of King Fahd who was executed for witchcraft, the twenty-nine page report charges that Saudi Arabia's practice of unlimited pretrial detention and its acceptance of uncorroborated confessions as evidence encourage the use of coercion and torture to obtain a conviction. The absence of any written or published penal code, or codes of criminal or judicial procedure, permits the authorities excessively wide discretion to decide what constitutes a criminal offense and what sentences are appropriate.

These serious flaws are especially disturbing given Saudi Arabia's increasing use of the death penalty--more than 540 executions since 1990, and at least one hundred in the first nine months of 1997 alone. "It is precisely these types of shortcomings of the judicial system that reveal the inherently cruel and irreversible nature of the death penalty," said Hanny Megally, the executive director of Human Rights Watch/Middle East, "and the reason for our categorical opposition to its use."

Human Rights Watch finds that foreign workers in Saudi Arabia are especially vulnerable to serious abuses, including arrest and punishment on spurious charges brought by employers attempting to force them to relinquish their legitimate claims for compensation. The great majority of those executed have been foreigners, including some cases in which there was ample evidence to support the victims' claims of innocence.

The report cites a series of letters written by al-Naqshabandi to the trial judge, alleging that his employer, a nephew of King Fahd, had brought false charges against him when he refused to falsely testify against another employee. Although the letters provide names of more than twenty witnesses al-Naqshabandi says could verify his version of events, according to his family, no defense witnesses were ever called. Friends and family who saw al-Naqshabandi in prison only three days before his execution say that at that time he did not know that he had been convicted of any offense, let alone sentenced to death. Although the family and the Syrian embassy formally requested that the body be returned to Syria, the Saudi government has refused to authorize its release to the family.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Saudi government to ensure that all laws exist in clear written form, and are freely available to the public and to all parties engaged in legal actions. At a minimum, crimes punishable by imprisonment, corporal or capital punishment should be codified in written form. Human Rights Watch further urges the Saudi government to take immediate steps toward the elimination of the death penalty from Saudi law, including an immediate halt to all executions, and to end the criminalization of the exercise of freedom of belief or expression. Finally, Human Rights Watch calls upon Saudi Arabia to conduct an independent investigation into the arrest, detention, trial and execution of `Abd al-Karim al-Naqshabandi, and to return his body to his family for burial in Syria.

Copies of this report are available from the Publications Department, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017 for $10.50 (North American shipping) and $15 (International shipping).

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