The Politics of Death: The Use of the Death Penalty in Saudi Arabia



Saudi Arabia is part of the regrettably long list of countries that still retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes. Despite Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud announcing extensive plans to modernize the country and pledging to curb executions by imposing them only for serious crimes (e.g., murder), the rate of executions has almost doubled under his rule. Indeed, between 2015 and 2022, an average of 129 executions were carried out each year. This represents an 82% increase compared to the 2010-2014 period. In the year 2022 alone, 147 individuals were executed, 90 of which were for crimes that are considered to be nonviolent.

Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty is particularly alarming as it is often imposed for offenses that are related to individuals’ exercise of their right to freedom of speech, assembly, and association. Even more disturbing is the systematic denial of due process for people put on death row, as “confessions” are frequently extracted under severe torture and ill-treatment while victims’ complaints of mistreatment are essentially ignored by the judiciary. Family members of death row inmates are often not notified of their execution or offered the chance to say goodbye to them. The only way relatives learn about the fate of their loved ones is often through the media. These aspects demonstrate a significant lack of transparency by Saudi authorities in administering the country’s system of capital punishment, as well as a general disregard for the value of human life. Moreover, gross due process violations, lengthy prison sentences and executions for protest-related crimes target disproportionately more individuals belonging to the Shi’a Muslim minority, who have long suffered discrimination and violence by the Saudi government.

These elements point to a deliberate strategy of repression by Saudi authorities, which consists in the use of the death penalty to silence dissent and instill fear in the population instead of punishing only the most serious crimes. Furthermore, the unequal treatment of the Shi’a Muslim community reflects a politicized use of such strategy, which aims to suppress opposition emerging from the Eastern Province.

Furthermore, as of November 2022, Saudi Arabia also resumed executions for drug-related crimes, thereby ending the unofficial moratorium on this kind of offenses that had endured since February 2020. In the first two weeks following the lifting of this moratorium, executions were carried out almost daily. The Spokesperson for the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Liz Throssell described this development as a “deeply regrettable step”, even more so “just days after a wide majority of States in the UN General Assembly called for a moratorium on the death penalty worldwide”. She further referred to the imposition of capital punishment for drug-related crimes as “incompatible with international norms and standards.”

Recently, Jordanian national Hussein Abu al-Khair fell victim to Saudi Arabia’s wrongful use of the death sentence for non-serious crimes. He was executed in March for allegedly smuggling amphetamine pills from Jordan to Saudi Arabia. The evidence used to sentence him to death was extracted under severe torture and ill-treatment. Currently, two Bahraini men Sadeq Majeed Thamer and Jaafar Mohamed Sultan are on death row after being convicted for allegedly carrying explosive material. They also reported having been tortured into signing a confession. The two men have exhausted all legal remedies and their fate depends on the Saudi Supreme Court’s decision to uphold or annul their death sentences.

Despite human rights organizations, UN experts, United States’ (US) lawmakers and the European Union’s (EU) High Representative Josep Borrell widely denouncing Saudi Arabia’s unjust use of the death penalty, the country has largely deceived international appeals and continued to administer death sentences and carry out executions following sham trials. Saudi authorities have also proved their failure to uphold even their own stated commitments, as the recent reinstatement of executions for drug-related crimes defies their pledge (although unofficial) to end this type of executions. In light of Saudi Arabia’s continuous elusion of its human rights obligations, the EU must step up its efforts in holding Saudi officials accountable for their heinous crimes and total disregard for human life.

Al-Khair’s case

 On 18 May 2014, Hussein Abu al-Khair, a Jordan national aged 57 and father of eight, was arrested by Saudi authorities for allegedly smuggling amphetamine pills from Jordan to Saudi Arabia. It was only after one month that Husain could talk with his family and report that, during a 12-day incommunicado detention at an unknown location, he had been subject to torture and other dehumanizing treatments: he was verbally abused, humiliated, hung from his feet and beaten on his stomach, head, feet, hands, and face.

Hussein was forced to confess the drug trafficking charge under the duress of torture, which was so painful he could no longer hold a pen and had to resort to his fingerprint to sign the document. He later retracted this ‘confession’ before the Tabuk Criminal Court and requested a medical report. However, without legal representation or consular assistance throughout his pre-trial detention and court proceedings, his claims of torture were not investigated and the court allowed the prosecution to use the confession against Hussein. Additionally, as is practice in the Saudi judicial system, at least one of the judges was not a certified judicial officer. Indeed, he was a religious cleric who had simply taken some classes administered by the Saudi Ministry of the Interior.

The court sentenced Al-Khair to death for drug charges, contrary to the international requirement that this be reserved only for “the most serious crimes.” The retrial ordered by the Supreme Court after Hussein’s appeal was also unfair, as the prosecution used again the coerced confession against Al-Khair in the absence of his attorney, resulting in a second death sentence. The beacon of hope stemming from his second appeal and a 2021 royal directive granting pardon for some detainees held on drug offenses vanished in November 2022, when Saudi Arabia once again ramped up its use of executions for drug-related offenses. He was executed in March of this year.

Two Bahraini victims

 Over the last several years, the application of death sentences in Saudi Arabia has been extensively abused by the authorities. Two Bahraini nationals are also among the recent sufferers of this macabre trend. 26-year-old Sadeq Majeed Thamer and 23-year-old Jaafar Mohamed Sultan were both arrested on 8 May 2015 by King Fahd Causeway Customs authorities for allegedly transporting and possessing explosive materials.

25 days after the unwarranted arrest, officials from the Bahraini Criminal Investigations Directorate and police force disguised in civilian clothes raided Jaafar and Sadeq’s homes in Bahrain and confiscated some of their belongings without presenting a warrant. In the meantime, and without their families’ knowledge, Sadeq and Jaafar were taken to the General Investigation Prison in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and placed in solitary confinement for nearly 4 months.

Throughout their pre-trial detention and interrogation period, Saudi authorities denied them access to legal representation. They were also not provided enough time to adequately prepare for the trial nor were they allowed to present evidence.

It was only on October 13 2015, after 115 days of enforced disappearance, that the two Bahrainis were allowed to talk to their families, despite being prohibited from discussing the conditions of the detention and investigations. In that occasion, as well as later in court, Sadeq and Jaafar revealed that they had been subjected to physical and psychological torture including threats of solitary confinements, beatings, and threats against their families. Due to the torture he faced, Jaafar was transferred to the hospital for ten days.

On the account of the same events that led to their arrests, Sadeq and Jaafar received two different sentences. On 31 May 2016, the Bahraini Fourth High Criminal Court condemned them to life imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 Bahraini dinars on the following charges: funding and joining a terrorist group; possessing, acquiring and manufacturing explosives; and training on the use of weapons and explosive materials. In Saudi Arabia, instead, the Public Prosecution charged them with joining a terrorist cell, smuggling explosive materials, and misleading the Saudi investigation authorities, and the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court sentenced them to death on 7 October 2021.

Since 2018, human rights organizations called upon Saudi authorities to revoke their death sentences, return the inmates to Bahrain, and properly investigate all allegations of torture with a view of holding perpetrators accountable. Despite their efforts, on 11 January 2022, the Saudi Court of Appeals upheld the death sentences of Sadeq and Jaafar. Two weeks later, the UN Special Procedures warned Saudi Arabia that the two Bahrainis were sentenced to death without due process and a fair trial, which would make their execution “arbitrary”.  At the moment, the final decision of the Supreme Court is the only thing separating them from the imminent risk of execution.


The use of death penalty in Saudi Arabia

Even though we can observe a global movement aiming at abolishing the death penalty around the world, many countries have retained it in their judiciary systems. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is known to be one of the most deadly executioners in the world, with more than 1,200 people executed between 2010 and 2021. This situation stems from the wide range of offenses Saudi Arabia applies the death penalty to under Islamic Law. According to Reprieve’s 2023 report, in the last decade, the types of crimes resulting in executions can be roughly classified into the following categories: murder, sexual offenses, witchcraft and sorcery, kidnapping or false imprisonment accompanied by assault, burglary or robbery, and drug trafficking.

If capital punishment can be handed down for a wide range of crimes, the Saudi judges are also granted a large discretion in establishing rules based on the Saudi interpretation of Islamic Sharia. Saudi Arabia’s interpretation dates back to the bargain between Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab in 1744, and was solidified with the 1927 Riyadh Conference. The appliance of death penalty, according to the Islamic Law, can be divided in three main categories. The first, hudud – known as Quranic offenses – concerns crimes for which an exact punishment is prescribed in the Quran or the Hadith, such as banditry, blasphemy, or sodomy. These crimes can be punishable by death. The second category, the qisas crimes, also known as retribution-in-kind, applies to instances of murder: once the alleged murderer is convicted, the family of the victim can seek either the death of the convicted or a payment. Finally, a large segment of Saudi law concerns the third category, ta’zir, which can be understood as discretionary law. Indeed, Saudi rulers can legislate outside the categories defined in the Quran and the Hadith, as has been the case for the ta’zir law on drug smuggling, which imposes mandatory death sentences upon convicted persons.

The Saudi government had promised to end the execution of minors, first by promulgating a new Juvenile Law in 2018 and, more recently, by stating at the United Nations Human Rights Council in February 2021 that it had completely abolished the practice of executing children. However, many human rights organizations, including the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, have reported many violations of these commitments from Saudi Arabia. For instance, many minors from the Shi’a community were sentenced to death, and many Saudi young men are on death row despite having been sentenced when they were under the age of 18, like Abdullah al-Huwaiti.

In January 2021, the Saudi Human Rights Commission stated that the country had introduced a moratorium on executions for drug-related crimes. Even though this moratorium appeared to be implemented, it was not formalized and remained unofficial, as existing narcotics laws carried the death penalty and individuals previously sentenced to death for drug-related crimes remained on death row. Between January 2021 and November 2022, Saudi Arabia was committed to engage in a rehabilitation and prevention strategy regarding the drug-related offenses. During that period of time, the State did not carry out any executions for such crimes. However, in November 2022, the Saudi authorities ended the moratorium and resumed executions for drug and contraband offenses.

Finally, as the execution of the Jordan national Hussein Abu al-Khair has shown, the issuance of death penalties often follows unfair trials where forced confessions are admitted as evidence in courts.

Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty has brought the attention of the international community. In 2019, the US Representative Tom Malinowski introduced a bill at the House of Representatives about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and the need to hold those responsible accountable. Moreover, in 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution concerning the cases of Mustafa Hashem al-Darwish and Abdullah al-Howaiti to urge Saudi Arabia to abolish the death penalty for child offenders. Moreover, right after the resuming of executions in November 2022, UN experts called for an immediate moratorium on executions for drug offenses. Furthermore, the case of Abdullah al-Huwaiti was brought to the European Parliament in 2022 by the MEPs Maria Arena and Hannah Neumann through a statement deploring his second death sentence. Unfortunately, these examples of international mobilization have proven to be insufficient as Mohammed bin Salman has taken intolerance to new levels over the last six years, while still being at the forefront of the international stage.


Conclusion and Recommendations

Despite increasing scrutiny over the use of the death penalty, especially for less serious crimes, there is no sign that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is considering putting an end to this practice. While the true number of prisoners on death row is uncertain, due to the fact that Saudi Arabia does not comply with the UN requirements for transparency in the use of the death penalty, recent reports uncovered that Saudi authorities executed at least 1,243 people between the years of 2010-2021. As the host of the third largest migrant population in the world, the Saudi system, which should provide them enhanced protection under the provisions of international law, exposes foreign nationals to due process and fair trial violations in the context of the death penalty. In its Concluding Observations on the combined fourth to ninth periodic reports of Saudi Arabia, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed deep concerns regarding the disproportionate number of foreign nationals facing the death penalty in the Kingdom.

Despite his contrary statements concerning the reform of the judicial system and reducing the number of executions, since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power the increase in the number of executions in Saudi Arabia has been alarming and should be treated by the international community as a matter of utmost importance. There is still time for the international community to take meaningful actions against the unjust and extensive use of the death penalty in the Kingdom and the resulting breach of international law.

Though the 2021 European Parliament (EP) resolution and the international advocacy designed to release Sadeq Majeed Thamer and Jaafar Mohamed Sultan and other cases of death sentences represent significant efforts to drive positive change in the country, this approach is not sufficient to end capital punishment in Saudi Arabia. The government has yet again deceived the international community, committing serious crimes with total impunity by carrying out executions for drug-related offenses and other non-serious crimes following unfair trials. ECDHR firmly asserts that the EU should take advantage of the existing EP resolutions and the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime to hold Saudi officials accountable for their heinous crimes. Therefore, considering its repressive legal and regulatory environment, as well as the continuous and unlawful use of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia, we count on the essential action of the European External Action Service (EEAS) to:

  • Call on Saudi Arabia to provide information about the current conditions of the Bahraini detainees, as well as information about their arrests, investigations (confessions under torture) and trials;
  • Urgently call on the Saudi King to annul the death sentences of Sadeq Majeed Thamer and Jaafar Mohamed, as well as the reinstatement of the moratorium on the death penalty for drug offenses and other non-serious crimes;
  • Urge the Saudi government to review all current death sentences based on confessions, as these tend to be extracted under torture and ill-treatment, and ensure that such review is in line with international standards of fair trial; ;
  • Condemn the Saudi government for using death penalty, including against child offenders and urge them to fully abolish the death penalty in Saudi Arabia;
  • Propose the adoption of the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime against Saudi officials and entities involved in the arbitrary arrests, persecutions and forced confessions under torture of Hussein Abu al-Khair, Sadeq Majeed Thamer and Jaafar Mohamed.