(New York) – The Saudi government should immediately halt all executions and retry those convicted in trials that do not meet minimum international standards of justice, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 19, the government executed four Sri Lankans and subsequently ordered their bodies to be publicly displayed, in circumstances that flout basic protections of international law.
Human Rights Watch last spoke to one of the four Sri Lankans, Ranjith de Silva, on February 12; at that time he was unaware of his imminent execution and hopeful that he could still obtain clemency.
“The execution of these four migrants, who had been badly beaten and locked up for years without access to lawyers, is a travesty of justice,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “International law only allows states to use the death penalty for the most serious crimes and in the most stringent of circumstances – and neither condition was met in this case.”
According to de Silva, he and the other three men, Victor Corea, Sanath Pushpakumara, and Sharmila Sangeeth Kumara, had taken part in armed robberies in early 2004. De Silva was arrested on March 11, 2004, five months after arriving in the kingdom, and pleaded that he was driven to crime out of financial desperation. De Silva explained that his contract stipulated monthly wages of 400 Saudi Riyals (US $115), but that his employer only paid him 250 Riyals, the cost of his monthly lodging. Only one of the defendants was alleged to have hurt anyone in the course of a robbery.
On November 30, 2006, Human Rights Watch researchers visited al-Ha’ir prison south of Riyadh and asked to see de Silva. The prison warden, Sa’id Thafir al-Haqbani, did not give Human Rights Watch access to the prisoner and claimed incorrectly that there were no prisoners sentenced to death at his prison. On February 12, 2007, Human Rights Watch was able to speak by telephone to de Silva, still in al-Ha’ir prison. He said that he was still hopeful that he could obtain clemency, and did not know he was to be executed within one week.
De Silva admitted that during the robberies he had a weapon with him that he brandished “to make the people there scared,” but said that he had never fired his gun. A co-defendant, Corea, had caused physical injury, shooting two shop employees. According to de Silva, both victims recovered from their wounds, and one of the victims, an Indian man named Muhi al-Din, told the judge in a civil suit that he did not seek any damages and asked for clemency for the four Sri Lankans after learning that a court had sentenced them to death in a criminal trial.
De Silva said that officers of the criminal investigation department who arrested him severely beat him on the back. He confessed to his crimes after police told him that Corea had already given a full account of the robberies. De Silva explained that at no time was he told that he might face the death penalty for such an offence, nor was he ever informed that he had a right to a lawyer or a right not to incriminate himself. He claims that at no stage of his arrest, interrogation, detention, or trial was he ever told that he could see a lawyer.
Around nine months after the arrest, an official in al-Ha’ir prison informed de Silva that he had a court hearing scheduled for the next day. According to de Silva, one judge presided over the criminal hearing of all four defendants, which lasted around three hours. A scribe took the minutes and a translator interpreted, but no prosecutor was present and the defendants did not have legal or consular assistance.
De Silva said he was only allowed to speak in response to the judge, who asked where he was and what he did during the robberies. The judge asked whether they had suffered beatings during interrogation. All four replied that they had. De Silva said he wanted to explain that he had never fired the gun and tell the judge that Corea cajoled him into joining the criminal exercise, but was not given the opportunity to do so.
According to de Silva, several months after the first hearing, Saudi prison officials brought him and the other three defendants to court, again without prior notice. De Silva said that at this second hearing, two judges conferred in camera for 20 minutes, then sentenced Corea, Pushpakumara and him to death. De Silva said, “I cried, I was so destroyed. What can I do now?”
In response to a query from the judge, all four defendants refused to accept the verdict, and the judge sent the case for review to the court of cassation. The men were not invited to make any submissions to the court of cassation or informed whether there would be any hearing. Three months later, the men were advised by a judge in a third trial session that the cassation court had upheld the verdict. According to de Silva, he was the only one of the four who did not accept the verdict of the cassation court. The judge, however, did not inform him how to appeal this decision or give the men a copy of the verdict.
“Defendants sentenced to death must, under international law, have a meaningful right to appeal their verdicts, but these men didn’t get the most basic safeguards,” Whitson said.
Officials in the Saudi justice system failed to ensure that these four Sri Lankans had the basic safeguards required for anyone at risk of the death penalty. The judicial procedures were not transparent, and the defendants had no adequate means for their defense.
De Silva reported that he and his co-defendants were unaware how to conduct an appeal. Indeed, two of those convicted may have been unaware that they had been sentenced to death. Amnesty International reported that Sharmila Sangeeth Kumara believed that he had been sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. Human Rights Watch received information in November 2006 specifying that only de Silva and Corea were sentenced to death, while the others received sentences of 15 years. Prison warden al-Haqbani, too, informed Human Rights Watch that he thought de Silva’s sentence had been commuted to 15 years.
Saudi Arabia’s chief judge, Salih al-Luhaidan, told Human Rights Watch in a meeting on December 19, 2006 that it is against Islam to issue a written verdict to those sentenced to death or to inform them of the time of their execution, but that the kingdom had changed this practice due to the influx of foreign workers and the many capital offenses they commit.
The four Sri Lankans managed to contact their embassy from prison after the trial, but the diplomats informed them that it was too late to appoint a lawyer and that instead they would issue an appeal for clemency. One diplomat later attended the civil hearing.
A statement by the Saudi Ministry of Interior, dated February 19, 2007, the same day as the execution of the four defendants, said that a royal order affirmed the verdict of execution for armed robbery and the subsequent public display of their corpses, in compliance with Saudi law.
Saudi Arabia considers armed robbery to be an offense against God with prescribed, unalterable punishment if proven, based on the Koranic verse 5:33 that criminalizes waging war against God and His Messenger and spreading corruption on earth, and prescribes either “execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land” as a punishment.
Adnan al-Wazzan, a member of the Islamic Affairs, Judiciary, and Human Rights Committee of the Saudi Shura Council, wrote on the subject of armed robbery in his voluminous work Human Rights in Islam, that those who kill should be killed, those who rob should have hands or legs amputated, and that those who do not spill blood or take possessions should be imprisoned in order for them to repent.
The UN Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty require that countries that have not yet abolished the death penalty may only consider it for “intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences.”
Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all instances due to its inherent cruelty and irrevocability. Amnesty International has reported that Saudi Arabia has executed 17 persons already in 2007. Around 350,000 Sri Lankan migrants are estimated to be working in Saudi Arabia.