Grainy video footage of a public execution in Saudi Arabia earlier this year shows a woman on the floor begging for her life beneath her executioner. A man dressed in white raises a sword above his head. The images shocked the world and provided a sobering reminder of the kingdom’s unwavering commitment to the death penalty.
In Amnesty International’s 2014 global report on the death penalty, released on April 1, 2015, Saudi Arabia once again ranks among the top five executioners in the world. At least 90 people were executed in the kingdom in 2014. So far this year, the authorities are well on track to surpass last year’s annual execution rate, with at least 54 people executed in the first three months of 2015.
Most death sentences in Saudi Arabia are carried out by beheading, often in public. This gruesome execution method has driven the media to draw parallels with beheadings carried out by the so-called “Islamic State” armed group in Syria and Iraq.
Yet the Saudi Arabian authorities have fiercely defended their use of the death penalty, arguing that far from being the brutal acts of a notorious armed group, the executions they authorize are acts of justice, carried out in line with Islamic traditions and religious law, known as Shariah law, and only after the strictest fair trial standards are upheld.
But is that true? Do cases of executions in 2014 support these claims? The answer, Shariah experts would agree, is no.
For one thing, in a statement dated February 17, 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court confirmed that sentences, including death sentences where the punishment is left to the judge’s discretion (a category that includes drug-related offences), can be handed down even if it cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt that the suspect committed a crime. Suspicion, it seems, is enough for a judge to order putting an end to someone’s life.
Furthermore, under international law, “the most serious crimes” are the only crimes for which the death penalty is allowed. In Saudi Arabia, however, half of the announced executions in 2014, and so far in 2015, are for non-lethal offences, which do not fall into this category.
In 2014, the vast majority of executions for non-lethal crimes that took place in Saudi Arabia were drug-related, including drug possession, with the exception of one person executed for acts of “sorcery” and “witchcraft” – which are not recognizable criminal offences under international human rights law.
Under Shariah law, which is derived from the Quran and the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, which in turn form the basis of the constitution of Saudi Arabia, certain crimes are punishable by the death penalty. Drug-related crimes are not mentioned in these sources. Nor is there any mention of specific methods of execution, such as beheadings, as punishment for crimes.
A closer look at one incident, the execution of four young men after a flawed trial, reveals how profoundly problematic Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty really is.
On the morning of August 18, 2014, two sets of brothers from the same extended family were executed in the southwestern city of Najran after being convicted of “receiving large quantities of hashish.” The four men’s allegations that forced “confessions” extracted under torture were used to sentence them had been ignored.
Despite desperate last-minute appeals by members of their family, the executions were carried out. Relatives who contacted Amnesty International to ask for help to halt the executions received a phone call from Saudi Arabian Ministry of Interior officials, within hours, warning them to stop contacting the organization.
Neither the allegations that the four men had been tortured, nor the authorities’ inability to prove that they were indeed guilty of trafficking drugs saved them from the sword.
In the absence of reliable evidence for a drug-trafficking conviction, the judge amended the charge, convicting them instead of “receiving” large quantities of drugs. Neither charge meets the threshold of “the most serious crimes” under international law.
This is far from an isolated incident. On May 27, 2014, when Ali al-Nimr, a juvenile offender, was sentenced to death, the judge disregarded his torture allegations and the fact that his “confession” appeared not to have been handwritten by him. The judge also appeared to ignore the fact that Ali was never allowed to see a lawyer. Executions of juvenile offenders are strictly prohibited under international human rights law.
Saudi Arabia claims that it maintains the highest judicial standards in the use of the death penalty, and depicts those calling for it to be abolished or restricted, including Amnesty International and other organizations, as posing a threat to Islam because they seek to persuade Saudi Arabians to renounce Shariah law.
Such rhetoric by the authorities is not only bluntly false, but also fuels dangerous misconceptions and antagonism among Saudi Arabians towards human rights, international law, and the West.
Saudi Arabia’s authorities must stop deceiving people about the death penalty. They should acknowledge once and for all that the death penalty is a cruel and inhuman punishment that violates the right to life, and should take steps towards abolishing it entirely.