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Amnesty International Report: Rampant Executions in Saudi Arabia Fuelled by Justice System ‘Riddled with Holes’

Hundreds of people have been condemned to death after being convicted in unfair trials under Saudi Arabia’s deeply flawed judicial system, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today.

Killing in the Name of Justice: The Death Penalty in Saudi Arabia exposes the shockingly arbitrary use of the death penalty in the Kingdom, where the death sentence is often imposed after trials that blatantly flout international standards.

“Sentencing hundreds of people to death after deeply flawed legal proceedings is utterly shameful. The use of the death penalty is horrendous in all circumstances, and is particularly deplorable when it is arbitrarily applied after blatantly unfair trials,” said Said Boumedouha, Acting Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

“Saudi Arabia’s faulty justice system facilitates judicial executions on a mass scale. In many cases defendants are denied access to a lawyer and in some cases they are convicted on the basis of ‘confessions’ obtained under torture or other ill-treatment in flagrant miscarriages of justice.”

Use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia

Between August 2014 and June 2015 at least 175 people were put to death – an average execution rate of one person every two days.  

A third of all executions since 1985 were imposed for offenses that do not meet the threshold of ‘most serious crimes’ for which the death penalty may be applied under international law.  A large proportion of death sentences in Saudi Arabia – 28 percent since 1991- are imposed for drug-related offenses.

Nearly half – 48.5 percent – of people executed in Saudi Arabia since 1985 were foreign nationals. Many of them were denied adequate translation assistance during the trial and were made to sign documents – including confessions – that they did not understand.

Most executions in Saudi Arabia are carried out by beheading, or in some cases by firing squad. In certain cases executions are carried out in public and the dead bodies and severed heads are put on display afterwards.

Often, families of prisoners on death row are not notified of their execution and only learn of their loved one’s fate after they have been put to death, sometimes through media reports.

Flawed justice system

Saudi Arabia’s Shari’a law-based justice system lacks a criminal code, leaving definitions of crimes and punishments vague and widely open to interpretation. The system also gives judges power to use their discretion in sentencing, leading to vast discrepancies and in some cases arbitrary rulings. For certain crimes punishable under tai’zir (discretionary punishments) suspicion alone is enough for a judge to invoke the death penalty based on the severity of the crime or character of the offender.

The justice system also lacks the most basic precautions to ensure the right to a fair trial. Often death sentences are imposed after unfair and summary proceedings which are sometimes held in secret. Defendants are regularly denied access to a lawyer, or convicted on the basis of “confessions” obtained under torture or other ill-treatment. They are also denied the right to a proper, thorough appeal.

Saudi Arabia has vehemently rejected criticism of its use of the death penalty arguing that death sentences are carried out in line with Islamic Shari’a law and only for the “most serious crimes” and with the strictest fair trial standards and safeguards in place.

“Claims that the death sentence in Saudi Arabia is carried out in the name of justice and in line with international law could not be further from the truth. Instead of defending the country’s appalling record, the Saudi Arabian authorities should urgently establish an official moratorium on executions and implement international fair trial standards in all criminal cases,” said Boumedouha.

The case of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a cleric from eastern Saudi Arabia and a government critic who was sentenced to death in October 2014, clearly illustrates these shortcomings. He was convicted of vague offences after a deeply flawed and politically motivated trial and was denied the chance to prepare an adequate defence. Some of the offences are not recognizably criminal offences under international human rights law.

“The fundamentally flawed nature of Saudi Arabia’s legal system leaves the door wide open for abuse. The authorities are toying with people’s lives in a reckless and appalling manner,” said Boumedouha.

"If the authorities wish to show their commitment to rigorous fair trial standards they must implement reforms that will bring Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system in line with international law and standards.”

Pending full abolition of the death penalty, Amnesty International is calling on the Saudi Arabian authorities to restrict the scope of its use to crimes involving “intentional killing” in line with international law and standards, and to end the practice of imposing death sentences on juvenile offenders and those suffering from mental disabilities.