(New York) The government of Saudi Arabia should impose a moratorium on executions until all death penalty cases are independently reviewed, Human Rights Watch said today. The review should also examine practices of the justice and interior ministries that may have violated basic due process rights of Saudi citizens and foreigners sentenced to death.

Human Rights Watch said the cases of two Asian women migrant workers sentenced to death for allegedly killing their employers raise troubling questions about the transparency and fairness of the Saudi justice system in capital punishment cases. Neither woman had access to a lawyer or any other form of legal assistance, and consular officials were not present at their trials. Both women were convicted on the basis of confessions, a common feature of the kingdom's justice system.

"Innocent people may be on death row in Saudi Arabia facing imminent execution," said Virginia Sherry, associate director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Two Asian women migrant workers now on death row are persuasive examples of the need for review and reform: they did not speak Arabic, did not have lawyers, and may have been forced to sign confessions."

It is not publicly known how many Saudi citizens and foreigners are in prison awaiting the death penalty. At a meeting with Human Rights Watch representatives in Riyadh in January 2003, Major General Dr. Ali bin Hussein al-Harithi, director of the interior ministry's Prisons Administration, declined to provide statistics of the number on death row.

The two Asian women migrant workers who are now on death row are Sarah Jane Landicho Dematera of the Philippines, who was sentenced to death in 1993, and Siti Zaenab binti Buhri Rupa of Indonesia, who received a death sentence in 2000. Both women were employed in the kingdom as domestic workers in private households.

Sarah Dematera was forced to write down and then sign a dictated "confession," and was held incommunicado for one year. Siti Zaenab's family was not officially notified of her arrest until two months before her trial. Two migrants rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) - Kanlungan Center Foundation in Quezon City, Philippines, and the Center for Indonesian Migrant Workers in Jakarta, Indonesia - have closely followed the cases and continue to campaign actively on behalf of the women with their own governments and Saudi officials. These NGOs provided information to Human Rights Watch about the cases.

"The pattern of coerced confessions and the weight given to them in court in Saudi Arabia is well established," said Sherry. "If information about death penalty cases is withheld from family members and others, legal assistance not provided, and trials are not open, it's hard to have confidence in the verdicts."

Human Rights Watch said that the Saudi government should release statistics and other information about death row prisoners, and create an independent commission of inquiry to examine each case. Members should include experienced defense lawyers, legal scholars, and medical and mental health professionals, who should conduct private in-depth interviews with the defendants. Saudi women should be represented on the commission, particularly in view of the rapport that they can establish with women prisoners on death row. The inquiry commission should fully examine pre-trial detention and trial procedures on a case-by-case basis, and determine:

  • the period of time the defendant was held incommunicado
  • the government body with custody of the defendant during incommunicado detention
  • treatment of the defendant during incommunicado detention
  • date of any confession and the circumstances under which it was obtained
  • date(s) when family members and other interested parties were informed of the arrest, and the date on which these parties first had access to the defendant
  • date of notification of the charges against the defendant and a description of these charges
  • the defendant's requests for legal assistance, if any
  • date(s) of the provision of legal advice or assistance to the defendant prior to trial

The review of trial procedures should include examination of the following:

  • persons notified of the trial date and the method of notification
  • persons present at the trial
  • witnesses who testified at the trial for the defense and the prosecution, if any
  • evidence upon which the court's judgment was based
  • use of a confession as evidence, and the content of that confession
  • efforts of the judges to establish the voluntariness of the confession
  • ability of the accused to present a defense to the court
  • the written judgment of the court

Human Rights Watch said that the findings and recommendations of the commission should be transmitted to senior government officials and also made public. Individuals who suffered human rights abuses in the criminal justice system should be released and provided with compensation, or tried again with the guarantees now available under Saudi and international human rights law, including the right to legal assistance during every phase of the legal process.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, because of its inherent cruelty and irreversibility.