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 VIII. The Death Penalty and Executions: Migrant Worker Victims

“Orlando Lorenzo was in prison for six and a half years.  He always asked visiting diplomats from the [Philippines] embassy about his case, and they always told him that there was no news. Then he was executed – I was there on the day that they took him away.”  

-- Filipino migrant worker, Human Rights Watch interview, December 2003.

The death penalty is in force in Saudi Arabia and executions continue to take place there on a regular basis. (The kingdom is thus termed a retentionist country with respect to capital punishment.316)  The number of reported judicial executions in Saudi Arabia declined significantly in the three-year period from 2000 to 2002, although the proportion of foreigners sentenced to death remained high.317  The Saudi government does not provide public information about foreigners and Saudi citizens who have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution in prisons throughout the kingdom.  In October 2003, the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs revealed that fourteen Filipinos in Riyadh and Jeddah were “facing capital punishment,” but did not supply additional information.318 

This chapter documents five cases of migrant workers who were beheaded in Saudi Arabia without the knowledge of their embassies or immediate relatives. 

Migrant workers who were former prisoners told Human Rights Watch that foreigners condemned to death typically were unaware of their sentences and had no advance notice of their date of execution.  “The executed do not know what is about to happen to them until the very last moment,” said an Indian who was held in Buraiman jail in Jeddah in 2000. “A large number of police come into the cell and ask for the person by name.  Sometimes people are forcibly dragged out…I watched four Filipinos taken away like this.”319

A Filipino who was imprisoned with Orlando Lorenzo, a plumber from the Philippines, recounted the circumstances surrounding his execution on October 25, 1999.  It was clear, he said, that Orlando and the Philippines government did not know that he was sentenced to death and scheduled for execution:

Orlando was in prison for six and a half years.  He always asked visiting diplomats from the embassy about his case and they always told him that there was no news. Then he was executed -- I was there on the day they took him away. 

Two weeks after the beheading, embassy representatives came to the prison looking for Orlando, he added.320  It is unclear why Orlando was sentenced to death because his conviction was for “robbing and stabbing a Pakistani taxi driver,” not murder.321  In September 1998, an internal two-page memorandum from the Philippines embassy in Riyadh to the foreign affairs officials in Manila stated that despite “numerous requests to the authorities on information on the status of the case” it received a response from the Saudi foreign affairs ministry only once. The ministry’s communication, dated November 12, 1995, reported that Orlando was imprisoned in Malaz jail in a “hold-up case, stabbed a limousine driver and get the driver’s money [sic].”  The embassy also noted this: “Aware of the unique legal system in the Kingdom, hiring the services of a legal counsel at this stage will not serve any purpose.”  It added: “[T]he embassy feels that the imposition of the death penalty is possible.”322 

Based on letters that some executed Indian nationals sent to their families from prison, which Human Rights Watch reviewed during visits with their families, it appeared obvious that these men, like Orlando Lozenzo, did not know that they had been sentenced to death.  In most cases, the condemned men did not even know that their trials had been concluded. Family members explained to us how they typically received the first news of the executions unofficially, through phone calls from relatives or friends working in Saudi Arabia, or from anonymous letters that prisoners or other persons mailed to them. It was not until months later – and sometimes much longer -- that Indian authorities notified the families about the executions.

In 2003, the second secretary at the Indian embassy in Riyadh confirmed the prevailing secrecy:  

No advance information is given to us before beheading of Indians. We generally get the information after the execution from local newspapers. Whenever we received advance information in rare instances, we moved swiftly to stop such executions. In one such case, even the president of India sent a mercy petition to the Saudi king, which was rejected and the execution was carried out. Since this is the law here in Saudi Arabia, foreign diplomatic missions are unable to do much.323

As the cases below indicate, the families of Indians executed in the kingdom for drug offenses had no information about the legal proceedings that led to the death sentences, including the place and dates of trials.  They knew only the date of execution and, in some cases, the date of arrest. 

Abdul Kalam Azad Abdul Kadir: “Please save my husband and bring him home.”

Nazeema, a twenty-seven-year-old Indian Muslim who is the mother of two children, still believes that her husband Abdul Kalam will be returning any day from Saudi Arabia. Her relatives did not tell her about the letter that Abdul Kalam’s father received from the Indian embassy, dated February 8, 2003. The letter informed him that Abdul Kalam was executed on June 18, 1999 for alleged heroin smuggling.

Abdul Kalam Azad Abdul Kadir, a native of the Palakkad district in Kerala state, went to Saudi Arabia for the first time in the early 1990’s and worked for three years as an agricultural laborer. His family told us that he sent them 2,000 to 3,000 rupees every few months. When he returned home, he got married. In 1997, when Abdul Kalam was thirty-five years old, he traveled to Mumbai with six other Indian workers and an “agent” from Tamil Nadu to secure another employment visa to the kingdom. Abdul Kalam expected to work on a farm in al-Hasa, in the Eastern province. The men deposited their passports with another agent in Mumbai and paid him 20,000 rupees each. The agent subsequently “vanished,” the family said, and Abdul Kalam returned to Mumbai to collect his passport and money.  He telephoned his wife from the capital in July 1997 and informed her that someone had arranged his travel to Saudi Arabia and he was leaving the following week. 

After that telephone conversation, no one heard from Abdul Kalam again.  Over two years later, the family received a letter, dated August 15, 1999, from an Indian in Saudi Arabia who wrote that his uncle was in jail for drug offenses.  His uncle, whom he visited in prison, met Abdul Kalam there and said that Abdul Kalam was facing narcotics charges.  “My uncle told me that one Indian from Calicut and another from Palakkad were executed but I do not know if this is correct,” he wrote, and urged the family to contact the Indian embassy in Riyadh. The letter provided no additional information. It took almost three years for Indian authorities to respond to the family’s registered letters of inquiry about the case and confirm that Abdul Kalam had been executed.324

P.T. Shamsudeen: “Your son asked me to tell you that he was executed today.”

A short handwritten letter from an inmate in Section 17 of Buraiman prison in Jeddah is the way that P.T. Moheideen learned that his son Shamsudeen, thirty-seven years old and the father of three children, would not be coming home from Saudi Arabia.  The letter, dated September 17, 1999, stated this: “Your son was arrested and jailed for drug trafficking. Today Shamsudeen was executed. He asked me to tell you.  Friday is the day that letters go out from this prison.”325 

Shamsudeen’s father explained that his son first went to Saudi Arabia as a worker in 1985 and stayed for four years.  He came back to India to get married, then returned to the kingdom three more times.  He left India for the last time in 1997 with a visa to work as a driver in Damman that he purchased from an “agent” in Calicut for 20,000 rupees. His father provided the money as a loan.

The family heard nothing from Shamsudeen until a year later, when he sent a letter from Buraiman prison, informing them that he had been arrested at the airport with a group of Indians and did not know why. Over the next year the family received two more letters. In these letters Shamsudeen continued to assert that he did not know why he was arrested, and said that his case had not yet been brought before a court.  He added that the “first batch” of men arrested with him were taken to court and that he expected to be called soon.

The family learned later that the six Indians who traveled with Shamsudeen to Saudi Arabia were all recruited by the same agency. In such situations, the family was told, if one member of the group was arrested on drug charges, the others were also taken into  custody.326 

K.P. Ghafoor: “We are sorry to inform you that your son was executed…”

In July 2000, Indian citizen K.P. Ghafoor, from  Kerala state, was executed in Saudi Arabia. Our research indicates that he was apparently unaware that he had been sentenced to death.  The eldest of nine children, Ghafoor traveled to the kingdom for the first time in 1988, when he was twenty-three years old. According to his family, he worked as a cleaner in a post office in Mecca, for a monthly salary of 400 riyals, and was eventually promoted to clerk. He was fired from this government job when he returned to the kingdom late from his second leave in 1994, during which time he had married in India. He went back to Saudi Arabia again in 1997, on an umrah visa, but came home because he could not find work. 

Ghafoor left his village again in 1998, hoping to obtain a visa to Saudi Arabia in Mumbai.  He remained in the capital for two months before flying to Jeddah.  The family did not hear from him until a month later, when they received a letter that he wrote from Buraiman prison. He explained that someone in Mumbai gave him “edibles” to deliver to an address in Jeddah, which he did. The recipient was arrested and led police to Ghafoor, who also was taken into custody.  Ghafoor told his family that the package contained drugs. 

Ghafoor wrote to his family monthly from prison. He commented in several letters that his court dates had been postponed, but never mentioned a trial.  The last letter that the family received, dated July 3, 2000, contained one page of generalities, including a request that they write to him and a promise that he would include more information in his next letter. The family learned from a relative who worked in Jeddah that Ghafoor was executed several weeks later. Family members told Human Rights Watch that they were in shock and made no attempts to contact Indian authorities to confirm this news.  

It was not until seven months later, February 11, 2001, that the Indian consulate in Jeddah mailed a brief letter to Ghafoor’s father, notifying him of the date of the execution.327  The family said that they know nothing more about the case. Gafoor’s father received a second letter, dated March 19, 2001, from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs Passport Office in Kozhikode. It simply noted that the office had received his son’s passport from the Saudi government. Gafoor’s remains were not sent back to his family.  “We heard that bodies are never returned so we never asked about it,” one relative said.328  Gafoor’s only child, a son, is now seven years old.

Raghavan Asari Santhosh: “The Arab sponsor told me that no one could save my son.”

A large framed photograph of his son Santhosh dominates the tiny sitting room in the home of Raghavan Asari, a sixty-year-old Indian carpenter, and his wife Seetha.  Santhosh was executed in Saudi Arabia on August 25, 1995, one of many innocent victims of Mumbai-based narcotics smugglers, his family believes.

In 1993, Santhosh sought an employment visa to work as a carpenter in Saudi Arabia. According to his father, he deposited his passport with a local travel agency, but after waiting for a while with no results he took it back. On his way home, Santhosh met an Indian “agent” who said he had a visa for a carpenter job in Jeddah at a monthly salary of 1,500 riyals. The price for the visa was 45,000 rupees, which the family borrowed from four local lenders. They paid the money on the agent’s verbal promise of the job. 

According to his father, Santhosh left his rural village in southern Kerala on October 6, 1993 and flew to Mumbai, in the company of another Indian “agent” named Samsuddin.  He waited in the capital for nine days. On the day of his scheduled flight to Saudi Arabia, Santhosh returned to his room and found his suitcase torn apart.  He told his family that Samsuddin consoled him and offered to lend him another bag, a briefcase, on the condition that he return it to a person in Saudi Arabia who would ask for it. Santhosh was arrested at Jeddah airport when customs officials found drugs in the bottom of the briefcase.

The family did not learn of Santhosh’s arrest until two months later when an anonymous letter arrived from the brother of an Indian nurse who met Santhosh when he was having blood tests after his arrest.  Alarmed, Santhosh’s father visited local politicians and wrote letters to Indian government ministers, who replied that the government was inquiring about the case.  In December 1994, Santhosh’s father traveled to Saudi Arabia on a visa that a friend secured for him, with a job as a carpenter. He presented a petition to the Indian embassy in Riyadh, which was faxed to the consulate in Jeddah and he met with his son’s Arab sponsor. He never attempted to visit Santhosh in prison because, he told us, Jeddah was such a long distance from Riyadh Santhosh sent letters to his family from Section 16 of Jeddah’s Buraiman prison. “He wrote to us constantly. He was happy working as a carpenter in the jail and hoped to be back in Kerala soon,” his father told us.  “My impression was that my son was innocent, and an innocent man is never punished,” he added. From what Santhosh communicated in the letters, he was brought to court two times, with a translator present. He never described what happened in the court and mentioned nothing about a verdict.  The family believes that Santhosh did not know he had been sentenced to death. Until now, the family has no detailed information about his trial. Santhosh was twenty-four years old when he was executed.329

Women Migrant Workers on Death Row

The cases of two Asian women domestic workers, who were sentenced to death for allegedly killing their employers, raise troubling questions about the fairness of the Saudi justice system. The women, from the Philippines and Indonesia, did not speak Arabic, and had no access to lawyers or any other form of legal assistance during their criminal investigations and subsequent court proceedings. Consular officials were not present at their trials.

Sarah Jane Dematera: The Philippines

Sarah Jane Landicho Dematera, a citizen of the Philippines, arrived in Saudi Arabia on November 11, 1992, to begin employment as a domestic worker for a Saudi family living in the Eastern province. She was twenty years old. Four days later, the wife of Sarah's employer was bludgeoned to death in the family home.  Sarah, who will be thirty-three years old on December 17, 2004, has spent almost one-third of her life in prison for a crime that she possibly did not commit.

According to the Kanlungan Center Foundation – the migrant rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the Philippines that has tirelessly campaigned on Sarah's behalf -- Sarah was a witness to the killing. She described the perpetrator as an Arab male, who ordered her to move and cover the body, clean the murder weapon, and wipe up the blood.

Sarah did not speak Arabic and had very limited fluency in English, so she was unable to explain anything to the victim's husband when he returned home. He called the police, who questioned Sarah three times and then told her that they believed she was the murderer. Sarah reportedly insisted on her innocence, but was held for one week in solitary confinement and subjected to continuous sleep deprivation.

At the end of this week-long ordeal, Sarah was brought to an office, given a blank notebook, and instructed to write down in English what senior officers - presumably interrogators from the interior ministry -- dictated to her. Terrified and weak, she complied but stopped writing when the narrative reached her own admission to the murder. When she protested, she said that she was told she would be electric-shocked and brought to court if she did not "confess."

Sarah was returned to the police station where she was arrested and was forced to sign the notebook that contained her "confession." The police then took Sarah to the house of her employer and asked her to re-enact how her employer's wife had been killed, videotaping her as she told the story. She was returned again to the police station and then transported to the women's prison in Dammam, where she was held for one year in solitary confinement.

Sarah's trial took place on October 4, 1993 and October 11, 1993 in Islamic Court No. 39/4, according to the Saudi foreign affairs ministry. Sarah did not have a lawyer or an interpreter, and Kanlungan believes that Philippines consular officials did not have access to her during these proceedings. The videotaped reenactment of the murder was used during the trial, Sarah informed her mother during a visit in 1998.

Kanlungan has emphasized that Sarah "was not given a chance to explain clearly what she witnessed, and how she saw the man kill the Madame, because she could not speak Arabic and was neither fluent in English." It has also raised other concerns: "There was no interpreter or lawyer to assist her during the trial and she did not have enough skills to present the facts of her case. If the videotaped re-enactment of the crime was shown in court, it could have been misinterpreted as [acts] that Sarah herself committed. No one from among the police must have clarified that the taped video was just a re-enactment of how Sarah witnessed/saw the man kill the Madame. She did not do it herself, she only re-enacted how she saw the crime happen in front of her own two eyes."

The court issued its judgment on November 14, 1993, finding Sarah guilty and sentencing her to death. Kanlungan provided Human Rights Watch with a translated communication from the Saudi ministry of foreign affairs, which stated the following:

The case was decided by the Islamic Court No. 39/4 dated 3/6/1414 (corresponding to Nov. 14, 1993) ordering the execution of said accused as a punishment for the crime she committed. However, the execution of said punishment has been postponed until the minor children of the deceased reach the age of majority to enable them to join with other heirs in requesting for the execution of the accused.

The said decision has been confirmed by Royal Decree and sent to the proper higher authorities dated 15/2/1415 (corresponding to July 24, 1994).330

Sarah did not have a family visit until February 1998, when a Kanlungan representative and Sarah's mother Josie traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with her in Dammam women's prison. Mrs. Dematera visited again in November 2001. In February 2003, the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs sent a written report describing its activities on Sarah's behalf. It noted that consular officials visited her in October 2002 and that she appeared physically healthy. It said the embassy pursued a royal pardon during Ramadan later that year, and was seeking assistance from Saudi lawyers and prominent citizens in the Eastern Province to intercede with members of the victim's family to accept monetary compensation in lieu of implementation of the death penalty.

According to Kanlungan, Sarah suffers from depression and requires tranquilizers in order to sleep. Severe backaches in 2002 prevented her from continuing work as a food aide in the prison, depriving her of the income she used to purchase food and phone cards.

A Kanlungan representative met with Sarah Jane's mother on May 23, 2003. Mrs. Dematera is worried because she has not heard from her daughter since late January 2003, presumably because the cellphone on which she made regular calls was stolen.  According to Kanlungan, written communication with Sarah is difficult because letters cannot be sent directly to the prison but must be routed through the Philippines embassy, which delivers them during occasional visits. Women inmates are not permitted to send letters to their families directly from the prison.

Siti Zaenab: Indonesia

Another example is the case of Siti Zaenab, an Indonesian woman from Bangkalan, East Java, who is married with two children. She arrived in Saudi Arabia in March 1998 on a contract for employment as a domestic worker with a Saudi family in Medina. According to the Center for Indonesian Migrant Workers (CIMW), the Jakarta-based migrant rights organization that has worked vigorously on Siti’s case, she wrote her last letter to her family in September 1999, mentioning for the second time that her employers were treating her cruelly. After receiving no additional correspondence from Siti for some time, the family became worried, and started to make inquiries about her. It was not until March 2000 that the Indonesian consulate in Jeddah informed the family by fax that Siti Zaenab had been arrested and charged with stabbing her female employer to death.

According to CIMW, the Indonesian foreign ministry said that Siti Zaenab was accompanied only by an Indonesian translator for her trial before a three-judge court in May 2000.  The translator was a post-graduate student in Medina, and this reportedly was his first interpreting assignment. The court sentenced Siti Zaenab to death, although it remains unclear if this was her first trial or an appearance before a higher judicial tribunal.

The Saudi foreign ministry informed Indonesian consular officials on July 18, 2000 that their scheduled visit to Siti Zaenab the next day had been postponed, with no reasons provided. Possibly fearing yet another secret execution of an Indonesian citizen, three Indonesian consular officials remained in Medina from July 19-21, monitoring the site near a mosque where beheadings were said to be carried out on Thursdays and Fridays.331

According to CIMW, Siti Zaenab's family received a letter from the Indonesian government, dated August 3, 2000, informing them that her execution had been postponed as a result of a personal conversation between King Fahd and Indonesia's then-president Abdurrahman Wahid.

Since this time, CIMW and the family have been unsuccessful in their repeated and copiously documented efforts to secure additional information about the case, and to secure visas to Saudi Arabia to visit Siti Zaenab in Medina prison and obtain first-hand information from her.  For example, CIMW told Human Rights Watch that at a meeting with Mohamed Ibrahim al-Utaibi of the Saudi embassy in Jakarta on January 18, 2001, he said that the embassy could not grant a visa to the organization and Siti Zaenab's family because of "regulations," which he declined to identify. Mr. Utaibi added that the Jakarta embassy was not aware of Siti Zaenab's case and, in any event, could only grant a visa with the permission from the kingdom's foreign affairs ministry.

Saudi authorities have made little information publicly available about the trial, other than to state that Siti Zaenab confessed to the killing.

On March 29, 2001, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Asma Jahangir, sent an urgent appeal to the government of Saudi Arabia about the case, noting that Siti Zaenab reportedly was tried without any legal assistance and that neither the former Indonesian ambassador nor his lawyer were allowed to visit her in detention. The Special Rapporteur received a reply from the Saudi government on November 20, 2001, the contents of which she summarized as follows:

[O]n 11 September 2000, [Siti Zaenab] was sentenced to death for murdering her employer after a trial during which she expressly confessed to the murder. It was brought to the Special Rapporteur's attention that the sentence had not been carried out, pending attainment of the age of majority by the murdered woman's eldest child so that it could be ascertained whether the heir wished to accept a stipulated financial compensation, pardon the offender or demand enforcement of the death penalty. The Government pointed out that the judicial authorities would endeavor to persuade the child to accept the financial compensation, in which case the State or charitable associations would help to provide the requisite sum. It was further reported that the judiciary is bound by any legal settlement reached, i.e. if the victim's heirs relinquish their right to retribution either before or after the judgment, the accused is reportedly not liable to the death penalty.332

The Government’s Obligations under International Law

In 1984, the United Nations Economic and Social Council formulated safeguards to protect the rights of individuals facing the death penalty.333  The international community views these safeguards as the basic guarantees for ensuring that the rights of these defendants are respected.  In 1985, the Seventh United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders called upon all retentionist states to adopt and implement the safeguards. The closed nature of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system makes it impossible to judge the extent to which the kingdom adheres to these minimum safeguards.

For example, in some of the death penalty cases described above, including the drug smuggling cases, the lack of information about trial proceedings leaves it an open question if the alleged crimes were intentional.334  The United Nations Secretary-General observed in a 1995 report that retentionist countries had a “wide range of capital crimes.”  He noted in particular “that the death penalty can be imposed for crimes when the intent to kill may not be proven or where the offence may not be life-threatening, which, may in turn, suggest a wide interpretation of both the letter and the spirit of the safeguard.”335  The lack of transparency of Saudi Arabia’s justice system, coupled with the pattern of coerced confessions, raises the most serious concerns about the quality of the evidence that is used to impose sentences of capital punishment.336  Given these major flaws in the kingdom’s criminal justice system, it is a grave abuse of human rights that the Saudi government does not ensure that every person facing the death penalty is provided with skilled and effective legal assistance.337 

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has emphasized the critical importance of ensuring fair trial standards and procedures in capital punishment cases, including the right to a lawyer:

All defendants facing the imposition of capital punishment must benefit from the services of competent defense counsel at every stage of the proceedings. Defendants must be presumed innocent until their guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, in strict application of the highest standards for the gathering and assessment of evidence. In addition, all mitigating factors must be taken into account. The proceedings must guarantee the right to review of both the factual and the legal aspects of the case by a higher tribunal, composed of judges other than those who dealt with the case at the first instance. The defendant's right to seek pardon, commutation of sentence or clemency must also be ensured.338 

The Special Rapporteur characterized as “most disturbing” the lack of transparency with regard to capital punishment trials, and stressed the need for governments to release publicly all relevant information about death penalty cases:

Reports regarding the secrecy surrounding the trial and application of the death penalty in a number of States, are most disturbing….[I]n some countries there is considerable official reluctance to reveal statistical information on the death penalty. This secrecy reportedly affects family members, who are not informed in advance of the date of a relative's execution and have no right to the body after execution.

The Special Rapporteur also made a plea for the release of information to the public about death penalty cases:

[T]he Special Rapporteur refers to resolution 1989/64, in which the Economic and Social Council urged Member States to publish, for each category of offence for which the death penalty was authorized, and if possible on an annual basis, information on the use of the death penalty, including the number of persons sentenced to death, the number of executions actually carried out, the number of persons under sentence of death, the number of death sentences reversed or commuted on appeal and the number of instances in which clemency had been granted. 339

The Special Rapporteur urged retentionist governments “to provide comprehensive information on cases in which the death penalty has been imposed to national and international human rights organizations so that they are able to ensure that all safeguards and guarantees applicable in imposing the death penalty have indeed been observed.”  She has noted that “some countries do not even give access to simple data on the death penalty,” and “there is a lack of transparency in the circumstances surrounding the imposition of death penalty.”340 This chapter makes clear that Saudi Arabia is an egregious case in point.

These serious concerns prompted Human Rights Watch in 2003 to call for a moratorium on executions in Saudi Arabia until all death penalty cases could be independently reviewed.341  What we said at that time continues to apply.  We recommend that the Saudi government release statistics and other information about every prisoner on death row, and establish an independent commission of inquiry to examine each case individually.  Members of the commission should include experienced defense lawyers, legal scholars, and medical and mental health professionals. Saudi women should be represented on the commission, particularly in view of the rapport that they could establish with women prisoners.

Human Rights Watch proposes that commission members conduct private in-depth interviews with each person condemned to death, with the goal of gathering information about conditions and treatment in pre-trial detention, and the conduct of their trials, with a particular focus on practices of the justice and interior ministries that violated the basic due process rights of Saudi citizens and foreigners who were sentenced to death. We recommend that the commission determine the following about pre-trial detention:

  • the period of time that each defendant was held incommunicado;
  • the government ministry with custodial authority of defendants during incommunicado detention;
  • treatment of defendants during incommunicado detention;
  • date of confessions and the circumstances under which they were obtained; date(s) when family members and other interested parties were informed of each person’s arrest, and the date on which these parties first had access to the defendants date of notification of the charges against defendants and a description of these charges request that defendants made for legal assistance, if any; and
  • date(s) of the provision of legal advice or assistance to defendants prior to trial.

Human Rights Watch further recommends that the commission’s independent review of trial procedures focus at minimum on the following subjects:

  • persons notified of each defendant’s trial date, and the method of notification;
  • persons present at the trials;
  • witnesses who testified for the defense and the prosecution, if any;
  • evidence upon which the court's judgment was based;
  • the use of confessions as evidence, and the substantive content of these confessions;
  • efforts of the judges to establish the voluntariness of the confessions;
  • ability of defendant to present a defense to the court; and
  • the written judgment of the court.

We urge that the findings and recommendations of the commission be transmitted to senior Saudi government officials for consideration, and also made public. We continue to believe that Saudi citizens and foreigners who have suffered human rights abuses in the criminal justice system should be released and provided with compensation, or tried again with the full guarantees provided under Saudi and international human rights law, including the right to legal assistance during every phase of the legal process.

Mortal Remains: Whereabouts Unknown

In all the cases of judicial execution in Saudi Arabia that Human Rights Watch examined, the families told us that they never received the bodies of their relatives. “We do not know what happened to his body and we never received a death certificate,” Raghavan Asari Santosh, an Indian Hindu, said about his twenty-five-year-old son who was executed in 1995.342  Chandran Kizhakke Cholakkil, another Indian Hindu  whose twenty-six-year-old son Udayakumaran was executed on May 20, 2000, showed us the death certificate he received but said he wanted the mortal remains of his son in order to carry out the traditional religious burial rites.343  The wife of Orlando Lorenzo, a Filipino Christian who was executed in 1999, sought unsuccessfully to have his remains repatriated.344  Whether the families of the executed men were Muslim, Hindu or Christian, the denial to them of closure according to their religious practices remains an additional aching personal loss.

The mortal remains of all executed foreigners, including non-Muslims, reportedly are buried at secret locations in the kingdom. This practice is one of the few exceptions to the general rule prohibiting the burial of non-Muslims in the kingdom. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia’s justice minister Abdullah Mohammed Al Shaikh acknowledged that Islamic law does not dictate this prohibition but his comments suggest that the practice is derived from the government’s own restrictions on religious freedom: "The burial of Muslims and non-Muslims alike involves religious practices," the minister stated. "And if we allow the non-Muslims to be buried here, this will be followed by the practicing of their religion."  He admitted that some foreigners, including executed persons, are buried at “unofficial” locations in the kingdom:

"There are so many non-Muslim foreigners here that we just can't fly out all of their bodies," says Mr. al-Shaikh….So, he says, many are interred at what he describes as "unofficial" burial sites around the country. That's the case, for example, with the dozens of foreigners beheaded for crimes such as murder, rape or sorcery every year, and with bodies that are too mangled to ship. Such sites are off-limits to visitors.345

The Indian government has also noted that executed foreigners are one of five “exceptional cases” in which mortal remains are buried in the kingdom “irrespective of the religion.”346 

Human Rights Watch strongly urges the Saudi government to disclose publicly its policies with respect to the disposition and location of the mortal remains of men and women who were executed in the kingdom pursuant to judicial decisions.  Specifically, authorities should clarify the following: (1) the procedure by which the immediate family of victims are notified about the execution of their relatives; (2) the procedure through which family members can be informed of the specific location in the kingdom of the remains of a judicially executed relative; and (3) the government’s policy with respect to repatriation of the remains of foreign citizens who have been executed in the kingdom pursuant to judicial decisions. 

With respect to cases of judicial executions documented in this report, Human Rights Watch requests, on behalf of the families, that Saudi authorities disclose where the human remains are located in the kingdom and, as an urgent matter, indicate how the families can arrange to have the remains repatriated. 

[316] Countries that have abolished the death penalty for all crimes are described as abolitionist; those that retain the death penalty but have not carried out any executions in a period of ten years or more are described as abolitionist de facto.

[317] According to the annual reports of Amnesty International, there were at least 123 Saudi citizens and foreigners executed in Saudi Arabia in 2000, seventy-nine in 2001, and forty-eight in 2002. According to Amnesty’s statistics, foreigners represented a substantial proportion of the number of persons reported executed. In 2000, 57.7 percent of the total were foreigners; in both 2001 and 2002, foreigners comprised 41.6 percent of the total number of persons reported executed.    

[318] Department of Foreign Affairs, Manila, “Number of OFWs in Death Row Inaccurate; No Executions of Pinoys Held Since 2000,” Press Release No. 548-03; 02 October 2003.

[319] Human Rights Watch interview, Calicut, Kerala, India, December 2, 2003.  The Saudi interior ministry announced that four Filipinos found guilty of murder and armed robbery were executed on November 17, 2000. “Saudi executes 4 Filipinos, one citizen for murders,” Reuters, November 17, 2000.

[320] Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 20, 2003.

[321] Bayani V. Mangibin, “Certification,” Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Worker Affairs, October 28, 1999, Pasay City, Philippines.

[322]  “Case of Orlando Lorenzo,” Philippines Embassy, Riyadh to SFA (OLAMWA-CAD), Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs, September 13, 1998, Reference ZRY-547/98.  A copy of this memorandum is on file at Human Rights Watch.

[323] V.V. Narayanan, in television interview on “Pravasa Lokam,” Kairali television channel, Kerala, India, broadcast July 3, 2003.

[324] Human Rights Watch interviews, Palakkad, Kerala, India, November 30, 2003.

[325] Human Rights Watch read this letter, handwritten in Malayalam, at the family’s home.

[326] Shamsudeen traveled to Saudi Arabia on a false Indian passport, with the name Ashraf V. Kabeer, his father said. The passport number was T-419135 and its date of issue was December 13, 1994.

Human Rights Watch interview, Palghat, Kerala, India, November 29, 2003.

[327] The text of the letter read: “Sir, We are sorry to inform you that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has informed this consulate general that your son, [the] late Mr. Gafoor Kizhakke Pallath, was executed on 22.04.1421 H. (24. 07. 2000) on charge [sic] of narcotics smuggling in Saudi Arabia.  Please accept our condolences.”  The letter was signed by Rani Malick, Vice Consul (Passport). Its reference number is:  Jed/C/436/2/2001.

[328] Human Rights Watch interviews, Kulukkallur, Palghat, Kerala, India, November 29, 2003.

[329] Human Rights Watch interview, Vavara Ambalam, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India, November 26, 2003.

[330] Copy of translation on file at Human Rights Watch. 

[331] In June 2000, Warni Samiran Audi, another Indonesian domestic worker, was executed in the kingdom  for allegedly killing the wife of her Saudi employer. The Indonesian embassy in Riyadh was not officially notified of her execution, according to Din Syamsuddin, then-director general for labor in the Manpower Ministry. Indonesian embassy officials reportedly had followed Warni's case for three years, seeking her release or a reduced sentence. The secret execution drew criticism from Indonesian government officials and caused an uproar among Indonesian nongovernmental organizations.

[332] United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, 58th session, Agenda item 11(b), Civil and Political Rights, Including Questions of: Disappearances and Summary Executions, Report of the Special Rapporteur, Ms. Asma Jahangir, submitted pursuant to Commission resolution 2001/45, Addendum, May 8, 2002, E/CN.4/2002/74/add.2, Paragraph 537.

[333] Economic and Social Council Resolution 1984/50, May 25, 1984.

[334] Safeguard 1 states: “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, capital punishment may be imposed only for the most serious crimes, it being understood that their scope should not go beyond intentional crimes with legal or other extremely grave consequences.”

[335] Report of the Secretary-General, “Capital punishment and implementation of the safeguards guaranteeing the protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty,” Paragraph 56, United Nations Economic and Social Council, E/1995/78, June 8, 1995.

[336] Safeguard 4 states: “Capital punishment may be imposed only when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts.”

[337] Safeguard 5 states: “Capital punishment may only be carried out pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court after legal process which gives all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial, at least equal to those contained in article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right of anyone suspected of or charged with a crime for which capital punishment may be imposed to adequate legal assistance at all stages of the proceedings.”  Emphasis added by Human Rights Watch.

[338] Interim report of the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions,

[339] Issues of special concern to the Special Rapporteur,

[340] Interim report submitted by Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights,  United Nations General Assembly, A/57/138, Fifty-seventh session, Item 111 (b) of the preliminary list, Human rights questions: human rights questions, including alternative approaches for improving the effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, July 2, 2002.

[341] See Human Rights Watch, “Stop Saudi Executions: Asian Women Migrant Workers on Death Row,” Press Release, July 2, 2003.

[342]  Human Rights Watch interview, Vavara Ambalam, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India, November 26, 2003.  See Chapter VII for information about this case.

[343]  Human Rights Watch interview, Ottaplam, Pakakkad, Kerala, India, November 30, 2003.  Human Rights Watch reviewed the formal notification of the execution that the family received from the Embassy of India in Riyadh, dated December 4, 2000, No. RIY/CW/436/640/2000.  The letter also stated that the Saudi foreign affairs ministry reported that Udayakumaran was arrested on November 13, 1999 for “smuggling heroin” into the kingdom.

[344] Human Rights Watch received this information from Kanlungan, the migrant rights organization in the Philippines.  See Chapter VII for additional information.

[345] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudi Arabia Welcomes Foreigners To Work in Nation -- but Not to Die,” Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2002.

[346] The other exceptions are: young children; non-Muslims for whom Saudi sponsors obtain permission for burial in the kingdom; cases in which families have not agreed to accept the remains; cases of remains too mutilated to be repatriated.  Consulate General of India, Jeddah, “Death Cases of Indian Nationals,” (retrieved February 2, 2004).

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