government: Traditional monarchy
state of civil and political rights: Not free
constitution: governed according to Shari'a (Islamic law); the Basic Law that articulates the government's rights and responsibilities was introduced in 1992
legal system: based on Sharia law; several secular codes have been introduced
legislative system: a consultative council (90 members and a chairman appointed by the monarch for four-year terms)
judicial system: Supreme Council of Justice
religion: Muslim 100%
methods of execution: Firing squad
death row: more than 100 (Sources: AI, 10/06/2011)
year of last executions: 0-0-0
death sentences: 0
international treaties on human rights and the death penalty:
Convention on the Rights of the Child
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Saudi Arabia is the Islamic country that most strictly interprets Sharia law. It prescribes the death penalty for homicide, rape, armed robbery, drug-trafficking, witchcraft, adultery, sodomy, homosexuality, highway robbery, sabotage, and apostasy (renouncing Islam).
On September 12, 2005, Saudi Arabia decided to create a Governing Commission for Human Rights. According to an official communication, the Commission has the duty to “protect and strengthen human rights, defend their awareness and ensure the respect of human rights while following Islamic law.” The decision to create the commission shortly followed the ascension to the throne of King Abdullah in August after the death of King Fahd. The creation of a Governmental body on human rights had been scheduled in previous years.
On 12 January 2010, the Shura Council passed legislation amending the Criminal Procedure Law so that death sentences can only be issued if approved unanimously by all judges in the case. The amendment also states that lower court verdicts awarding the death penalty or sentences dealing with the severing of hands or similar punishments will not be carried out without a verdict from the Supreme Court. The Court decision shall be with a unanimous decision. An overwhelming majority of 92 members voted in favour of the new amendment, while a few members opposed it.
On 14 October, 2012, the Shoura Council made again a major decision toward reducing instances of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia by stipulating that a death sentence issued on the basis of a judge's discretionary power becomes final only if the verdict is unanimous.
"The ruling of an appeals court on a lower court's decision to kill by beheading, stoning, amputation, or qisas (legally entitled retribution for a victim or his relatives) etc" will not be final except after it is endorsed by the Supreme Court. “The court's endorsement of the death penalty on taazir (a judge's discretion in situations where no religious punishment is prescribed) should not be made final unless it is by unanimous agreement," the council stipulated while discussing recommendations on criminal regulations made by the Committee for Islamic & Governmental Affairs. The Council voted down the committee's recommendation that the implementation of taazir for death punishment can be implemented even if the decision is made without unanimity.
The beheading tally in 2015 reached its highest level in the past eight years. As in previous years, about half of the executions involved foreigners.
Saudi Arabia beheaded at least 159 people, including 72 foreigners (among them 3 women), according to a Hands Off Cain tally based on media reports. A majority of those who were executed were convicted of murder (87), followed by drug-related offences (64), rape (5), terrorism (2), and incest (1).
In the first six months of 2016, the kingdom executed at least 95 people (75 Saudi and 20 foreigners, including a woman): 48 by beheading for murder (36), drug (11), kidnapping (1) and 47 by firing squad for terrorism.
In 2014, the kingdom had beheaded at least 90 people. At least 9 people were sentenced to death in 2015.
Saudi Arabia had among the highest number of executions in the world in the past – the record number was established in 1995 with 191 executions –, but in recent years the numbers had decreased considerably, thanks, in part, to some reforms in the penal system.
The new surge in executions began towards the end of the reign of King Abdullah, who died on 23 January 2015, accelerating this year under his successor King Salman, who has adopted a more assertive foreign policy. In April, the King promoted his powerful Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef to be crown prince and heir to the throne. Some diplomats in Riyadh have said that judicial reforms, including the appointment of more judges, have allowed a backlog of appeals cases to be heard, leading to a short-term rise in executions. Others have argued that regional instability may have led Saudi judges to impose more draconian sentences.
On 18 May 2015, Saudi Arabia has advertised for eight executioners. The eight positions, as advertised on the website of the Ministry of Civil Service in the religious jobs section, require no specific skills or educational background for “carrying out the death sentence according to Islamic Shariah after it is ordered by a legal ruling.” The ministry said successful candidates would also be expected to carry out amputations ordered by the kingdom’s Sharia courts.
On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people convicted of terrorism-related offenses, including 43 suspected members of Al-Qaeda and 4 Shiites, including Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent cleric and government critic from the country’s Shiite minority [See Chapter “War on Terror”]. The simultaneous execution of the 47 people was the biggest mass execution for such offences in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 militants who seized Makkah's Grand Mosque in 1979. Analysts have speculated that the execution of the four Shiites was partly to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia's majority Sunni Muslims that the government did not differentiate between political violence committed by members of the two sects.
On 3 January 2016, the United Nations deplored the mass execution of 47 people by Saudi Arabia, calling on the Riyadh regime to commute all death sentences handed down in the kingdom. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was “deeply dismayed” by Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. “Sheikh Nimr and a number of the other prisoners executed had been convicted following trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process,” Ban’s spokesman quoted him as saying in a statement. The UN chief had raised the case of Sheikh Nimr with Saudi leaders on several occasions, the statement read, reiterating Ban’s stance against the death penalty and urging the kingdom to commute capital punishment. In October 2015, Ban had called on the Al Saud regime to revoke Sheikh Nimr’s death sentence. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein added that the well-known Shia cleric had not committed any crime viewed as “most serious” under international humanitarian law, and called on the kingdom to impose a moratorium on all executions. “Under international human rights law, the death penalty may only be imposed, in countries that still have this form of punishment, if a strict set of substantive and procedural requirements are met,” Zeid said. “The category of ‘most serious crimes’ for which the death penalty is still permissible, has been consistently interpreted by human rights mechanisms as being restricted to murder and other forms of intentional killing,” he added. “Convictions cannot be based on confessions obtained under torture and ill-treatment, or trial proceedings that fall short of international standards,” the High Commissioner said. “Now we see almost one-third of the 2015 total executed in a single day,” Zeid said. “That is a very disturbing development indeed, particularly as some of those sentenced to death were accused of non-violent crimes,” he added. He urged the government of Saudi Arabia to impose a moratorium on all executions and “to work with the UN and other partners on alternative strategies to combat terrorism.”
Beheading as a “legal” means of carrying out executions provided by Sharia law is exclusive to Saudi Arabia.
Typically, executions are held in the city where the crime was committed in a public place near the largest mosque. The condemned is brought to the site with their hands tied and forced to kneel before the executioner, who draws a long sword, while the crowd shouts “Allahu Akbar” (God is great). Sometimes, beheading is followed by the public display of the bodies of the executed. The typical procedure of beheading provides for the executioner to re-fix the beheaded head onto the body of the executed, so that it may be hanged, generally, for about two hours, from the window or balcony of a mosque or upon a pole, during midday prayers. The pole is sometimes shaped in the form of a cross, hence the use of the term “crucifixion”. The bodies of the executed are displayed only on specific orders from the tribunal, when the crime committed is considered particularly heinous.
Often, the accused is denied the assistance of a lawyer before the trial and in the courtroom.
In March 2013, Saudi Arabia authorised regional governors to approve executions by firing squad as an alternative to public beheading, the customary method of capital punishment in the kingdom. The reason for the change was a shortage of qualified swordsmen. According to a circular by the Government’s bureau of investigation and prosecution, the use of firing squads was being considered because some swordsmen had to travel long distances sometimes to get to the place of executions, making them sometimes late. The circular stated that death by firing squad was not a breach of Sharia law. A firing squad had been used to carry out a death sentence a few years ago. Sheikh Ali Al-Hakami, member of the Senior Board of Ulema, gave his seal of approval for execution by firing squad, as long as it is as quick or faster than the traditional method of beheading. He added that death by firing squad could be permissible according to Sharia, as long as the process is painless. “That’s why beheading by sword is the best way to achieve the purpose of punishment in Islam because it does not cause any torture,” Al-Hakami said. Al-Hakami added that religious scholars should also investigate the possibility of using other methods, such as electric chair, hanging and lethal injections, to find out if they also comply with Sharia.
Saudi Arabia’s laws include stoning to death but the penalty has not been executed for many years.
For example, a married Muslim who practices sodomy or a non-Muslim with a Muslim can be stoned to death.
On 13 June 2016, Mohammed Al Zahrani, ex-director of the Saudi prisons department, said many people had been sentenced to stoning to death in the past years for committing major crimes in line with the law but none of them has been stoned. He said many sites had been prepared for stoning at cemeteries in Riyadh and other cities in the past years but none of them has so far been used. “The reason is that they retract their confessions before the execution of the sentence,” he told the Saudi Islamic TV channel Al-Resala. “This is because Islam gives a chance to these convicts before they are stoned. They are informed that they can avoid being stoned if they change their statements and all of them have done so just before they were stoned.”
On 23 December 2015, Sri Lanka's foreign ministry said the life of a Sri Lankan maid due to be stoned to death in Saudi Arabia for adultery had been spared. The 45-year-old mother of two would instead be imprisoned, after an appeal by Sri Lanka was considered by Saudi Arabia and the execution order was withdrawn. The woman was convicted in August, along with an unmarried Sri Lankan man. She was sentenced to death by stoning, while the man was sentenced to 100 lashes. Government official Ranjan Ramanayake said the Sri Lankan government had been informed about the woman's case only after she had been convicted – despite the fact she had been arrested in April 2014. “Islamic Sharia law says four respected Muslims need to be eyewitnesses for this type of case, but this has not been possible in this case,” he said. “Unfortunately, not knowing the law, she has confessed under pressure without any legal help.”
In Saudi Arabia, numerous cases involving “blood money” were resolved positively thanks to the Saudi Reconciliation Committee (SRC), a nation-wide organization that secures pardons for death row prisoners and helps settle lengthy inter-family and tribal disputes through mediation. Its mission is to prevent haggling by the families of the murder victims over blood money Diya. Since its establishment in 2008 and as of March 2015, the committee dealt with more than a thousand cases involving convicted murderers who were sentenced to death and was able to secure pardons in 309 of them, said Nasser Bin Mesfir Al-Zahrani, the committee’s chairman.
In September 2011, Saudi Arabia decided to triple Diya, the money paid by a killer to the victim’s relatives under Islamic law, but kept the sum for female victims at half that for male victims. The Kingdom’s supreme judicial authority raised Diya to 300,000 Riyals (80,000 USD) from 100,000 Riyals (26,666 USD) in accidental death and 400,000 Riyals (106,666 USD) in premeditated murder. Blood money values have been static for the last 29 years. The Supreme Council of Scholars had called for reviewing Diya in light of the increasing prices of camels, which were used as blood money in the old Islamic age. According to Sharia rules, the heirs of a murdered person should be compensated with 100 camels.
Forgiveness from the families of the victims must be documented in a court of law. Three judges control the information and the formal aspects of pardon granted before allowing procedures go ahead. The judges also verify if families who pardoned the convicts have placed some condition.
The death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy
Dozens of people are arrested each year on charges like witchcraft, recourse to supernatural beings, black magic and fortune telling. These practices are considered polytheistic and severely punished according to Sharia law.
In March 2012, Saudi Arabia decided to bolster its religious police unit specialized in arresting magicians within its war on sorcery. The crime of “sorcery” is not defined in Saudi Arabian law but there have been reports of cases involving all forms of black magic, including: dowsing, exorcism, money cloning, fortune tellers, healers, bone-setters, makers of potions, herbalists, palmists, animal callers, alchemists, psychics, and empathy.
In November 2014, the Saudi Arabian government decided to impose the death sentence on anyone who attempts to import “all publications that have a prejudice to any other religious beliefs other than Islam.” In other words, anyone who attempts to bring Bibles or Gospel literature into the country will have all materials confiscated and be imprisoned and sentenced to death.
Several persons accused of witchcraft have been executed in Saudi Arabia in the past few years.
Death penalty for juveniles
Saudi Arabia does not have a penal code and judges pass verdicts based on their own interpretation of Sharia law.
Saudi Arabia ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1996, which prohibits the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole as punishments for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crime. However, the Saudi authorities do not seem to take their assumed responsibilities on human rights through adherence to international treaties very seriously, because there is a huge divergence between the commitments made by Saudi Arabia for human rights and its daily reality.
Furthermore, the Sharia law of the Kingdom never imposes the death penalty on persons that have not reached the age of adulthood, and on the basis of the Regulations of Detention and the Regulations of Juvenile Detention Centres of A.H. 1395 (1975), that is defined as anyone under the age of 18. However, a judge could issue a death penalty against the accused if they felt that the offender had reached maturity, regardless of their actual age at the time of the crime.
In 2013, Saudi Arabia executed three people who were 17 at the time of their alleged crimes. In 2014 and 2015, no executions of juvenile offenders were recorded in the Kingdom.
In the first six months of 2016, Saudi Arabia executed another three juvenile offenders.
Human rights activists accused Saudi Arabia of executing minors among the 47 put to death in January 2016: two men suspected of being part of Al-Qaeda and one Shia protester.
Death penalty top secret
Executions are public domain only once they are carried out, while family members, lawyers and the condemned themselves are kept in the dark. The executions are announced by the Minister of the Interior generally and, usually, filmed by the official Saudi news agency SPA.
Many of those executed are foreign nationals, the vast majority being from the poorer countries of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The migrant workers are highly vulnerable to abuse from their employers and the authorities. They are often not aware that they have been sentenced to death. In many cases, they have not even realised that their trial has ended. The condemned only begin to realise the gravity of their situation, when a handful of police erupt into their cells, call the condemned by name and drag them out to their execution. Humanitarian organisations have denounced the absence of due process in Saudi Arabia. Often, the accused is denied the assistance of a lawyer before the trial and in the courtroom.
The war on drug
In 2005, Saudi Arabia redefined the law on drug-trafficking, giving discretionary powers to judges in deciding between imprisonment and the death penalty. The 1987 law calls for the mandatory sentence of death for those who traffic or manufacture illicit drugs while the death penalty is discretionary for those who use illegal drugs. Now judges can decide, at their own discretion, to reduce the sentence to a maximum of fifteen years, 50 lashes or a minimum fine of 100,000 Saudi riyals (over 31,600 USD).
In February 2015, the legal charity Reprieve accused the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) of contributing to Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented rate of state executions by helping the kingdom arrest offenders. The charity, which represents the interests of people on death row all over the world, said documents from September 2013 showed the UNODC had “agreed to cooperation with the [Saudi] General Directorate of Narcotics Control on drug control- related matters, including support to law enforcement efforts to combat illicit drug trafficking”. Responding to Reprieve, the UNODC’s deputy executive director Aldo Lale-Demoz denied that the agency had “a programme of assistance on counter-narcotics law enforcement” with the Saudi government. “Cooperation with Saudi Arabia is focused on technical assistance and capacity building in the many different thematic areas that fall under UNODC’s mandate,” Lale-Demoz said.
Of the 159 executions in Saudi Arabia in 2015, at least 64 were carried out for drug-related crimes.
Another 11 convicted of drug trafficking were beheaded in 2016 (as of 30 June).
The war on terrorism
In Saudi Arabia, acts of terrorism – such as hijacking planes, terrorising innocent people and shedding blood – amount to “corruption on earth”, a charge that can carry the death penalty even when the offences do not result in lethal consequences.
The authorities set up specialised courts in 2011 to try Saudis and foreigners accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda or involvement in a spate of deadly attacks in the kingdom from 2003-2006.
Saudi Arabia carried out at least 2 executions for acts of "terrorism" in 2015 and at least 47 in 2016, as of 30 June.
But those sentenced to death and executed for terrorism also included people convicted of involvement in anti-government mass protests that erupted in February 2011 in the Qatif district, which is home to many of the Sunni-ruled country’s Shiite minority. The protesters attacked security forces, as well as public and private property, said the official SPA news agency.
On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people convicted of terrorism-related offenses, including 43 suspected members of Al-Qaeda and 4 Shiites, including Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent cleric and government critic from the country’s Shiite minority.
On 21 October, 2013, Saudi Arabia reviewed under the Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights of the United Nations. The government rejected all the recommendations concerning the abolition of the death penalty, including the recommendation to establish alternative sentencing and to suspend its application for less serious offenses and for the people who were minors at the time of the crime, with a view to moratorium on executions. Saudi Arabia noted that the death penalty is only imposed for the most serious crimes and strict procedures are applied in capital cases to the extent that the judgments are reviewed by 13 judges to the three levels of competence, in a manner consistent with international standards.
On 9 September, 2014, the UN independent UN experts called on Saudi Arabia to implement an immediate moratorium on executions. "Despite numerous invitations from organizations for human rights, Saudi Arabia continues to beheading people with a frightening regularity and in flagrant violation of international law," said Christof Heyns, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. "The processes are grossly unfair. The defendants is often not allowed to have a lawyer and death sentences are imposed as a result of confessions obtained under torture."
On 19 December, 2016, Saudi Arabia voted against the resolution for a moratorium on capital punishment to the General Assembly of the United Nations.