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(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia has executed at least 19 people since August 4, 2014. Local news reports indicate that eight of those executed were convicted of nonviolent offenses, seven for drug smuggling and one for sorcery.

Family members of another man, Hajras bin Saleh al-Qurey, told Human Rights Watch on August 17 that they fear his execution is imminent. The Public Court of Najran, in southern Saudi Arabia, sentenced al-Qurey to death by beheading on January 16, 2013 for allegedly smuggling drugs and attacking a police officer during his arrest.

“Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “There is simply no excuse for Saudi Arabia’s continued use of the death penalty, especially for these types of crimes.”

According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), the Saudi government news agency, on August 18, authorities executed four Saudi men in Najran province. A court had previously convicted the men – identified as Hadi al-Mutlaq, Awadh al-Mutlaq, Mufreh al-Yami, and Ali al-Yami – of attempting to smuggle hashish into the country.

Between August 4 and August 14, the press agency and local news outlets reported that authorities beheaded three other men across the country for drug smuggling, including one Saudi, one Syrian, and one Pakistani. Authorities publicly beheaded another Saudi man, Mohammed bin Bakr al-Alawi, on August 5 in al-Jawf Province for allegedly practicing sorcery, according to the Saudi Gazette.

Al-Qurey’s family members told Human Rights Watch that they fear he will face public beheading amid the recent surge of executions. According to his trial judgment, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, police arrested al-Qurey and his son Mohammed on January 7, 2012, at the al-Khadra border crossing with Yemen, after customs officers tried to stop them on suspicion of drug smuggling. Prosecutors alleged that al-Qurey struck police and civilian vehicles with his car as he sought to flee and violently resisted arrest, including assaulting a police officer with a knife.

According to the trial judgment, al-Qurey’s son confessed to smuggling drugs, but said his father was unaware that drugs were in the car. He also told the court that investigators had placed him in solitary confinement to pressure him to confess. Al-Qurey also claimed investigators abused him in pretrial detention, beating him and insulting him to pressure him to confess to the crime, although he has insisted throughout that he is innocent.

Al-Qurey also claimed in court that he could not recall the details of his arrest because he suffered from a mental disability. The court commissioned a medical examination to determine if al-Qurey could be held criminally responsible for his actions. The examining doctors found that al-Qurey had symptoms of mental illness, including auditory hallucinations, but concluded that he should be held criminally liable, the trial judgment stated. In January 2013, the court sentenced al-Qurey to death and his son to 20 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. A Saudi appeals court and the kingdom’s Supreme Court later upheld al-Qurey’s death sentence, family members said.

International standards require countries that retain the death penalty to use it only for the “most serious crimes,” and in exceptional circumstances. In all cases, those sentenced to death should have the right to seek pardon or commutation of their sentence. In 1996, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions stated explicitly that the death penalty should be eliminated for drug-related offenses.

The Death Penalty Worldwide Database, which collects information on executions across the globe, shows that Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world, and applies the death penalty to a range of offenses that do not constitute “most serious crimes,” including drug offenses, adultery, sorcery, and apostasy. According to media reports, Saudi Arabia has executed at least 34 people in 2014, including the 19 between August 4 and August 20. According to Agence France-Presse, Saudi Arabia executed at least 78 people in 2013.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.

In 2013, following similar resolutions in 2007, 2008, and 2010, the UN General Assembly called on countries to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, progressively restrict the practice, and reduce the offenses for which it might be imposed, all with the view toward its eventual abolition. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has also called on countries to abolish the death penalty.

“The current surge in executions in Saudi Arabia is yet another dark stain on the kingdom’s human rights record,” Whitson said.

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