(Beirut) – Saudi authorities have executed 108 people since January 1, 2016. The year began with a mass execution on January 2, of 47 men convicted of terrorism-related crimes. Since then, authorities have executed 13 people for nonviolent drug smuggling, 47 for murder, and one for rape. Saudi authorities are on track to match the 158 executions in 2015, and have already surpassed the 88 in 2014.

Saudi authorities have executed more than 400 people since the beginning of 2014.  

© 2008 Reuters

An imprisoned Jordanian man, Hussein Abu al-Khair, may face the death penalty after a Saudi court convicted him in January 2015 of attempting to smuggle amphetamine pills into Saudi Arabia by car. Abu al-Khair alleges that a Saudi court convicted him based on a confession he signed under torture.

“Executions are never the answer to stopping crime, especially when they result from a flawed justice system that ignores torture allegations,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “There is simply no excuse for Saudi Arabia’s frequent use of the death penalty for nonviolent drug crimes.”

Abu al-Khair’s trial judgment, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, says that Saudi authorities arrested him on May 18, 2014, as he was attempting to enter the country by car at the al-Durra border crossing, between the southern Jordanian port city Aqaba and the Saudi town of Haql. The judgment states that the border authorities searched Abu al-Khair’s car and found three bags hidden in the fuel tank filled with over 290,000 amphetamine pills.

A family member who has spoken to Abu al-Khair by phone told Human Rights Watch that he denies smuggling the drugs. He told the family member that he only signed a confession admitting to drug smuggling after authorities beat and tortured him for 12 days, including suspending him upside down by the ankles and beating him with sticks. The trial judgment says that Abu al-Khair recanted his confession in court, stating that it was merely “the words of the investigator.” Nevertheless, the judge accepted the original confession as evidence and sentenced Abu al-Khair to death in January 2015. Abu al-Khair did not have access to a lawyer before or during the trial, the family member said.

Abu al-Khair filed an appeal in January 2015, but has received no information about the status of his case, the family member said. He is in Tabuk prison.

Of the 108 people executed so far in 2016, 86 were Saudi citizens. Among the foreigners executed, three Jordanians and three Pakistanis were each convicted on drug smuggling charges.

Executions are never the answer to stopping crime, especially when they result from a flawed justice system that ignores torture allegations.

Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East Director


International standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi Arabia, require countries that retain the death penalty to use it only for the “most serious crimes,” and in exceptional circumstances. In 2012, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions stated that in countries that still use the death penalty, it should be limited to cases in which a person intentionally committed murder, not to punish drug-related offenses.

Human Rights Watch has documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system that make it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial, including in capital cases. Human Rights Watch analyzed seven trial judgments that the Specialized Criminal Court handed down in 2013 and 2014 against men and children accused of protest-related crimes following popular demonstrations by members of the Shia minority in 2011 and 2012 in Eastern Province towns. In all seven trials, detainees alleged that confessions were extracted through torture, but judges quickly dismissed these allegations without investigation, admitted the confessions as evidence, and then convicted the detainees almost solely based on these confessions, in some cases sentencing them to death.

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 and “sorcery.” Saudi Arabia trails only Iran in the Middle East for executing the highest number of people each year. Since the start of 2016, Iran has reportedly executed at least 216 prisoners, according to Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.

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 2012, 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.