Saudi Arabia is part of a long list of countries that still retain the death penalty for common offences. This country’s disproportionate use of capital punishment continues to be a cause for concern. Despite the at-the-time ambitious modernization plans and commitments by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, to limit executions to the most serious crimes, these promises have consistently been breached. In reality, during his reign, the number of executions has nearly doubled. Therefore, this comprehensive report thoroughly examines Saudi Arabia’s utilization of the death penalty from the beginning of 2023 to the present, in September.
In establishing the context, it is noteworthy to recall the significant development of 2020 when Saudi Arabia instituted a moratorium on executions for drug-related offences. This measure contributed to a remarkable 85% reduction in executions during that year compared to 2019. Against this backdrop, the report casts a spotlight on the events and trends in 2023, discerning a notable departure from the temporary restraint observed in 2020.
These past two years have witnessed a resurgence in the death penalty within Saudi Arabia. According to a report jointly published by the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (Hereinafter ESOHR) and Reprieve, the Kingdom maintains a persistent disregard for the fundamental right to life. Their meticulous analysis reveals an alarming upward trajectory in Saudi Arabia’s utilization of the death penalty since 2015, coinciding with the accession of King Salman to the throne on January 23, 2015, and the concurrent leadership of his son, Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Sa’ud. As the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (Hereinafter ECDHR) highlighted in its report “The Politics of Death: The Use of the Death Penalty in Saudi Arabia”, despite international disapproval, the country has persisted in the execution of juvenile defendants, further exacerbating human rights concerns. More specifically, despite the widespread condemnation from human rights organisations, UN experts, US lawmakers, and the European Union’s High Representative, Josep Borrell, Saudi Arabia has continued disregarding international appeals, choosing to enforce death sentences and conduct executions after trials widely regarded as biased.
The report further exposed persistent discrimination and injustice in Saudi Arabia’s application of the death penalty. Foreign nationals, including female domestic workers and low-level drug offenders, were disproportionately affected. Saudi Arabia’s government often used it as a means to suppress dissent and silence protestors, contrary to assurances by the Crown Prince that executions would be reserved solely for murder cases. Endemic violations of fair trial procedures and instances of torture were also highlighted in the report, including the torture of child defendants, highlighting that the new government employs the death penalty as a tool to suppress political opposition and stifle dissident voices.
More specifically, Saudi authorities resumed executions for drug-related crimes in November 2022, ending a moratorium that had been in effect since January 2020. Harm Reduction International (Hereinafter HRI), a non governmental organisation that investigates the global use of the death penalty for drug-related offences, has reported that by the end of 2022, 22 people convicted of drug offences would have been executed. It should be noted that the actual figure may exceed what has been officially declared.
Further, more than half of those executed were foreign nationals. From 2010 to 2021, Saudi Arabia executed foreign people for drug-related offences at roughly three times the rate of Saudi citizens, despite the fact that foreign nationals account for only 35% of the Saudi population. This resumption of executions occurred despite assurances from the authorities that they would reduce capital punishment in cases not governed by Sharia (Islamic law). Sadly, the practice of executing individuals for various offences persisted, indicating a significant deviation from their stated commitments.
On September 8, 2023, Amnesty International issued a press release indicating that, since the beginning of 2023, Saudi Arabia had executed 100 individuals. In August alone, the rate of executions in Saudi Arabia escalated, with an average of four executions per week. These executions were regularly documented by the Saudi Press Agency (hereinafter SPA), which officially confirmed the 100th execution of the year on the morning of the press release.
On July 21, 2023, reports emerged indicating that, from the start of the year through the conclusion of June, Saudi Arabia formally confirmed the execution of 61 individuals. Remarkably, all 61 of these executions transpired within the brief timeframe of just four months. Thus, considering the period from July 21 to September 8, an additional 39 executions have occurred, averaging approximately five executions per week.
It is crucial to emphasize that these statistics exclusively concern officially acknowledged cases, raising significant concerns that some executions may have transpired clandestinely. The documented number of executions may indeed surpass the officially reported figure, given the historical tendency of Saudi Arabia’s government to underreport the reporting of executions within the nation. Furthermore, both the Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (Hereinafter ADHRB) and ESOHR have been actively monitoring instances of secret executions during the latter part of 2022. Adding to this concern, the official Saudi Human Rights Commission acknowledged the occurrence of unpublicized executions in 2023. In terms of statistics, these executions included at least 2 women and 19 foreign nationals.
Of those who were executed, 45 were Saudi Nationals, with the remaining individuals hailing from various countries, including 2 Indian nationals, 2 Pakistani nationals, 2 Bahraini nationals, 1 Filipino national, 1 Jordanian national, 5 Yemeni nationals, 1 Nepalese national, and 1 Bangladeshi national.
One noteworthy case that emerged in July of the current year involved the Saudi Specialised Criminal Court pronouncing a death sentence upon Mohammad al-Ghamdi, a retired educator. His conviction rested solely upon the content of his tweets, wherein he had voiced criticisms of the Saudi authorities.
The first reported instance occurred on March 12, 2023, when Saudi authorities executed Hussein Abu al-Khair, a 57-year-old Jordanian citizen and father of eight. His execution stemmed from a conviction related to a nonviolent drug offence and a confession obtained through torture.
On May 29, 2023, Saudi authorities executed the arbitrary death sentences imposed on two Bahraini youths, Sadeq Thamer and Jaafar Sultan. They were accused of transporting and possessing explosive materials, arrested without a valid warrant. This case highlights significant violations of due process, as they endured 115 days of enforced disappearance and were subjected to both physical and psychological torture, ultimately leading to their confessions.
One week prior, Saudi Arabia executed four young men from Al Qatif. Hassan Issa al Muhanna, Haidar Hassan Mowes, Mohammed Ibrahim Mowes, and Ahmed bin Ali bin Mutoq Al Badr were severely tortured to extract confessions, which were then used to convict them. They were convicted of weapons training, alleged smuggling intentions, and association with a terrorist organisation.
As the year progressed, the series of executions continued. On June 5, 2023, three Saudi nationals were placed on death row, namely Hussein bin Ali al-Muhaishi, Zakaria bin Hassan al-Muhaishi, and Fadel bin Zaki Anseef. They had been convicted in a court of law for their involvement in a terrorist cell, possessing weapons, and carrying out attacks on security centers and personnel with the clear intent to cause harm.; two of them also faced charges related to the crimes of rape and adultery. Merely a week later, on June 12, Saudi authorities executed three more Saudi men convicted of killing a security officer and establishing an alleged terrorist cell. This execution followed the grim fate of three men from the Kingdom’s Shia-majority Eastern Province, who had met their end earlier that month for their supposed involvement in a similar terrorist cell, weapon possession, and attacks on security forces.
On August 16, Saudi Arabia executed U.S. national Bishoy Sharif Naji Naseef, who was accused of strangling his Egyptian father to death and subsequently mutilating his body. Mr Naseef’s age and method of execution have not been shared publicly.
The Saudi government has repeatedly made commitments to cease the execution of minors. They enacted a new Juvenile Law in 2018, and the government proclaimed to the United Nations Human Rights Council in February 2021 that they had completely ended the practice of executing children. Despite these assurances, the government has consistently breached its promises. In its submission to Saudi Arabia’s Universal Periodic Review, Human Rights Watch has raised critical concerns regarding the nation’s practices concerning capital punishment against minors. This practice has persisted despite international norms. Over the course of the past seven years, Saudi Arabia has executed a minimum of 12 individuals who were minors at the time of their alleged offences.
Despite the Saudi authorities’ commitment to end their use of the death penalty against children under 18 at the time of the crime, Ali Adubisi, ESOHR’s director, has expressed grave concern over the imminent execution of nine Saudi individuals. These individuals are currently facing execution either because they were arrested when they were under 18 or because they were arrested as adults but were accused of acts they had committed as children. ESOHR has identified these individuals as Abdullah al-Hwaiti, Jalal al-Labad, Abdullah al-Darazi, Youssef al-Manasif, Jawad Qureiris, Hassan Zaki al-Faraj, Ali Hassan al-Subaiti, Mahdi al-Mohsen, and Ali al-Mabiyouq. Unfortunately, the current circumstances make it impossible to determine whether their executions have been approved or not, leaving the date of execution uncertain.
Statistics and trends:
When conducting a thorough analysis of all officially sanctioned executions that have taken place since the inception of King Salman’s rule, a profoundly troubling statistic emerges: a staggering minimum of 1,500 individuals have been subjected to state-sanctioned executions in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Under his reign, the rate of executions nearly doubled. Specifically, between 2015 and 2022, an average of 129 executions occurred annually, marking an 82% surge compared to the period from 2010 to 2014. In 2022, 147 individuals were executed, with 90 convicted of nonviolent crimes. If this trend continues, the number of executions in Saudi Arabia for 2023 could reach around 150.
This situation highlights the urgent need for international attention and action to safeguard the rights of these individuals. The recommendations from this report emphasize the critical necessity of instituting a moratorium on death sentences and executions, with the ultimate objective of complete abolition of the death penalty. Furthermore, the report underscores the pressing need to eliminate capital punishment for all offences, starting with those that do not fall under the category of “most serious crimes,” particularly emphasizing the context of drug-related offences. Additionally, the report highlights the importance of prohibiting the execution of child offenders under all circumstances. These measures are considered indispensable for preserving human rights, advancing justice, and aligning Saudi Arabia with established international standards and conventions.