At 90 Executions This Year, Saudi Arabia Sets a Grisly Record

Members of Magic Movement, a group of young Bangladeshis, stage a mock execution scene in protest of Saudi Arabia beheading of eight Bangladeshi workers in front of National Museum in Dhaka October 15, 2011. Andrew Biraj/Reuters

On May 28, Saudi Arabia carried out its 90th execution so far this year, equalling the number of people executed in the Kingdom during the whole of 2014.

The death toll is one of the highest we have recorded during the same period for more than three decades and marks an unprecedented spike in executions for a country already ranked among the most prolific executioners in the world.

"With the year yet to pass its midpoint, the Gulf Kingdom has raced towards this shocking toll at an unprecedented rate. This alarming surge in executions surpasses even the country's own previous dreadful records," said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Middle East and North Africa programme director at Amnesty International.

Today's execution, carried out in Riyadh, was of a Pakistani man convicted on drug-related charges. Almost half of the executions carried out so far this year were for drug-related offenses.

These do not fall into the category of "most serious crimes," and the use of the death penalty for such offences violates international law. The authorities themselves do not categorize drug-related offenses as crimes subject to divinely ordained punishment under Sharia law. Instead, they consider the use of the death penalty for such offenses a discretionary punishment.

Saudi Arabia's most common method of execution is beheading, often conducted in public squares. Occasionally prisoners in some southern provinces are executed by firing squad.

Many defendants in Saudi Arabia, including those sentenced to death, are convicted after flawed court proceedings that routinely fall far short of international standards for a fair trial. They are often convicted solely on the basis of "confessions" obtained under duress, denied legal representation in trials that are sometimes held in secret and are not kept informed of the progress of the legal proceedings in their case.

For some crimes punishable by death, the Supreme Court has recently confirmed that judges do not need to prove guilt but can sentence someone to death at their own discretion based on suspicion alone.

"The Saudi Arabian authorities' unwavering commitment to this brutal form of punishment is utterly gruesome considering the deep flaws in its justice system," Said Boumedouha said.

"The use of the death penalty is cruel and inhumane in any circumstance, but it is even more outrageous when meted out as a punishment against someone convicted in a trial that itself makes a mockery of justice."

Worryingly, a significant number of Shi'a protesters have been sentenced to death in the past two years. These are often in relation to protests in the Kingdom's Eastern Province in the aftermath of the 2011 mass popular uprisings that toppled a number of long-standing authoritarian rulers in the region.

Among those sentenced to death is Saudi Arabia's most prominent Shi'a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was sentenced to death in October 2014 after a deeply flawed trial. His nephew, Ali-al-Nimr, a juvenile offender, was sentenced to death in May 2014 solely based on "confessions" that he claimed were extracted under torture. The imposition of death sentences against individuals who were below 18 years of age when the crime was committed is prohibited under international law.

Six other Shi'a protesters were sentenced to death in the past year and scores of others await trial on charges for which the prosecution has called for the death penalty. Many of them have complained of ill-treatment in detention and of unfair trials.

The claim by the Saudi Arabian authorities that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime is unfounded.

"There is no convincing evidence that the death penalty is a particular deterrent to crime, or that it is more effective than other forms of punishment. Instead of expediting executions the Saudi Arabian authorities should immediately establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty," Said Boumedhoua said.


In Amnesty International's latest global report on the death penalty, published in April 2015, Saudi Arabia ranks among the top three executioners in the world, surpassed only by China and Iran.

As of December 31, 2014, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; the guilt or innocence of the individual; or the method of execution.

See also:

Saudi Arabia: Three more executions add to unprecedented spike in death penalty

Saudi Arabia: 100 days into King Salman's rule no sign of progress on human rights

Saudi Arabia executes Indonesian woman with suspected mental illness

Saudi Arabia: Cleric sentenced to death after flawed trial Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr