In stark contrast to the worldwide trend toward abolition of the death penalty, in Saudi Arabia its use has become increasingly frequent.1 Since 1990 at least 540 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia, usually by public beheading; at least one hundred people were reported executed in the first nine months of 1997 alone. Most of these were foreigners accused of any of a variety of offenses, including drug-trafficking, murder, armed robbery, and sexual offenses. In at least some cases there was ample evidence to support victims' claims of innocence.2

On Friday December 13, 1996 (3 Sha`ban 1417), `Abd al-Karim Mara`i al-Naqshabandi, age forty, was executed in Riyadh. A Syrian national who had worked for Saudi Prince Salman bin Sa`ud bin `Abd al-`Aziz for over fourteen years, al-Naqshabandi was convicted of practicing witchcraft (sihr) against his employer, who is the son of the former king of Saudi Arabia and the nephew of the current king. The information Human Rights Watch has been able to collect about the al-Naqshabandi case indicates that gross violations of human rights took place, and that al-Naqshabandi may have been prosecuted and then executed to satisfy the wishes of his wealthy, well-connected employer.

In April 1997 Human Rights Watch obtained copies of some of the documents al-Naqshabandi submitted to the court during his trial. Our subsequent investigation included interviews with members of al-Naqshabandi's family, as well as efforts to contact the Saudi ministers of justice and interior and the Syrian ministers of foreign affairs and interior (see appendices). In all cases the ministries involved failed to respond to our repeated requests that they clarify key issues in the case.

Among the documents submitted to the court were three long handwritten letters addressed to Judge Sulayman al-Samhan of the Greater Court of Riyadh and signed by al-Naqshabandi. Written in simple, sometimes awkward Arabic, they are the letters of a man trying to construct a legal defense without access to a lawyer or to legal books, and with only the most rudimentary idea of how a legal argument is made. The cover letter implores the judge to read what follows, saying that

I can't make myself heard except through these papers. My fate lies in them, and the fate of my family which is threatened with destitution and expulsion and losing everything if you don't read these papers that clarify my case. Your Excellency, I was not able to clarify to you during the [court] sessions all that I have to say, because of the position that I am in when I attend [the session], with its terror, and the guards, and the insults in people's eyes. And also because the [length of the] time of the sessions is not sufficient.3

The letters themselves describe the events leading up to al-Naqshabandi's arrest, and contain detailed allegations concerning his abuse by the Prince Salman and by officers from the police and the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (hay'at al-amr bilma`ruf wa al-nahi `an al-munkar, CPVPV). Healso provides the names of twenty-three individuals whom he says could verify his account if only the judge would call them to testify. According to al-Naqshabandi's family, the judge did not call a single defense witness, nor apparently did al-Naqshabandi know that he had to follow specific procedures to request formally that witnesses be called. This deadly lack of knowledge -- knowledge that any lawyer or the judge himself could have provided -- is apparent throughout al-Naqshabandi's written testimony, as he misses opportunities to argue against the legality of the charges against him, enter evidence to support his claims, challenge the jurisdiction of the arresting agency, or even bring a complaint against the officers who abused him and threatened him with torture to obtain a confession. It also appears that al-Naqshabandi may never have been formally convicted or sentenced. Family members who saw al-Naqshabandi only three days before his execution say he was in good spirits and had no knowledge of his conviction, nor of the death sentence that the Ministry of the Interior claims was ratified more than a week earlier. Al-Naqshabandi's wife only learned of her husband's execution when she received a telephone call from his brother, who had read about it in the newspaper.

While there are many other cases of individuals executed in Saudi Arabia after trials that failed to meet minimum standards of fairness, Human Rights Watch finds that this case deserves special attention. To begin with, the charges themselves are extremely vague, and suggest a dangerous expansion in the powers given to judges to define criminal activity and determine punishments. It is precisely this type of case that reveals the inherently cruel and irreversible nature of the death penalty, and the reason for Human Rights Watch's categorical opposition to its use.

Secondly, the case highlights the many serious shortcomings of a legal system that fails to provide minimum due process guarantees and offers myriad opportunities for well-connected individuals to manipulate the system to their advantage. At every step from his arrest to his execution, al-Naqshabandi's basic rights were violated in some way, and at no stage does it appear that any state agency intervened to protect his rights. Indeed, his arrest, detention and execution may have been part of an effort by the prince and individuals in authority to silence someone who simply knew too much about his employer's private life and business dealings, as al-Naqshabandi's family alleges.

Finally, this case reveals the special vulnerability of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. Saudi labor laws give employers tremendous control over their employees' movements, including the power to prevent them from leaving the country. Often this control becomes a source of leverage for extracting concessions from employees, who have few opportunities for recourse. This vulnerability, coupled with a judicial system that fails to meet basic standards of independence and impartiality and that allows indefinite pretrial detention and convictions based on forced confessions, not only allows but encourages human rights abuses.

1 By 1996 the number of countries that have abolished the death penalty for all crimes (fifty-eight) was more than twice what it had been in 1981 (twenty-seven). The figure reaches one hundred if countries that are abolitionist in practice are included. Amnesty International, The Death Penalty Worldwide: Developments in 1996 (London: Amnesty International, June 1997), AI Index: ACT 50/05/97. 2 As in the case of `Abd al-`Aziz Muhammad Isse, a Somali national who was executed in 1995 for a murder that occurred prior to his arrival in Saudi Arabia. 3 Cover letter to Judge Sulayman al-Samhan, Greater Court of Riyadh, undated.