(Beirut) – Saudi authorities executed Hussein Abu al-Khair, a Jordanian citizen, on March 12, 2023, after his conviction for a nonviolent drug crime, Human Rights Watch said today. The judge ignored his allegations that he had confessed only after days of torture and ill-treatment.
In January 2015, a Saudi court convicted Abu al-Khair of attempting to smuggle amphetamine pills into Saudi Arabia and later sentenced him to death. Under international law, the death penalty should only be imposed for the “most serious crimes” and in exceptional circumstances, and international law explicitly excludes drug offenses from such punishment.
“Despite Saudi promises to limit the use of the death penalty, the authorities have marched ahead with executions at an alarming rate,” said Joey Shea, Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Proceeding with Abu al-Khair’s execution just a day after the case was apparently raised by a senior UK government official demonstrates the shocking disregard Saudi officials have for human rights and their unbridled impunity.”
Saudi authorities did not notify Abu al-Khair's family members prior to his execution, nor did they allow them to speak to him and say a final goodbye, said the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, which is in contact with Abu al-Khair's family. Abu Al-Khair's body should be immediately returned to his family to allow for a proper burial, Human Rights Watch said.
According to court documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch, Abu al-Khair was arrested on May 18, 2014, as he was crossing the border between Aqaba in Southern Jordan into Tabuk in northwestern Saudi by car. Saudi border guards searched Abu al-Khair's car and found three bags with over 200,000 amphetamine pills hidden in the fuel tank. Abu al-Khair told family members that he denied smuggling the drugs, said a family member who previously spoke with Human Rights Watch.
The family member also said that he alleged that he only signed a confession admitting to drug smuggling after the authorities beat and tortured him for 12 days, including suspending him upside down by the ankles and beating him with sticks. Abu al-Khair later recanted his confession in court, stating that it was merely “the words of the investigator,” the trial judgment said. 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.
A spokesperson from the UK’s Foreign Office told Middle East Eye that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) Minister of State for the Middle East, North Africa, Lord Ahmad, raised Abu al-Khair’s case with Saudi authorities at a ministerial level “as recently as 11 March,” the day before al-Khair's execution.
Abu al-Khair’s execution comes exactly a year after Saudi authorities executed 81 men on March 12, 2022, the country’s largest mass execution in years, despite promises to curtail the use of the death penalty. Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch that 41 of the men belonged to the country’s Shia Muslim minority, who have long suffered systemic discrimination and violence by the government. Human Rights Watch has documented rampant and systematic abuses in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system that make it highly unlikely that defendants, including Abu al-Khair, received a fair trial.
The United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Abu al-Khair's detention to be arbitrary and without legal basis and, along with other rights groups, called for his release. In November 2022, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also called on Saudi Arabia to release Abu al-Khair immediately and halt plans for his execution.
International standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi Arabia, require countries that use the death penalty to use it only for the “most serious crimes,” and in exceptional circumstances. The OHCHR released a statement in November 2022 on the alarming rate of executions in Saudi Arabia after it ended a 21-month unofficial moratorium on the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty 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.
“Saudi Arabia’s latest example of the abuses that result from its arbitrary and cruel criminal justice system should give pause to countries, businesses, and celebrities that are doing business with the country despite its human rights record,” Shea said.