The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula is one of the five countries in the world where the most people are executed every year. In 2019, an execution took place on average every other day, with at least 184 people executed in total.
According to Amnesty International, nearly half of all executions were based on “non-lethal” crimes, such as drug smuggling or blasphemy.
The human rights organization Reprieve puts the figure as high as 72 percent. Nearly half of all those sentenced to death for drug offenses in 2015 were foreign nationals.
The last five years have looked anything but hopeful: At least 158 people were executed in 2015, at least 153 in 2016, at least 146 in 2017, and at least 149 in 2018.
Basis of Law in Saudi Arabia
Islamic Law and Sharia
Islamic law applies in Saudi Arabia: unlike our German legal system, there are therefore no fixed legal texts such as codes of law (e.g., our BGB) or collections of laws on which the administration of justice or the judicial system is based.
Instead, the basis of the law is the “Sharia,” which is based on the Koran as well as on the traditional speeches and actions of the Prophet Mohammed. Islamic law therefore also regulates religious obligations and “acts of worship” by people toward God, as well as by people among themselves in a community.
Because of this legal system and the close alignment with Sharia law and how it is interpreted in the kingdom, interpersonal acts such as adultery or other behaviors that indicate non-belief or turning away from God, for example, are punishable by death.
Thus, there is neither freedom of religion nor freedom of opinion in Saudi Arabia as we know it. Blasphemy and apostasy (turning away from God) are punishable by death, as is adultery. Other crimes and offenses punishable by death include terrorist offenses and plots, murder, robbery, kidnapping, rape, treason; since 1987, importation of drugs, and since 1988, espionage and corruption.
All those who are critical of or oppose the government are particularly at risk. Because of the lack of transparency in the arrests, trials and executions carried out, it is difficult to prove whether the alleged crimes actually correspond to the facts.
Religious conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites lead to further divisions, and it is not uncommon for critics of the government or religious adherents who belong to a Muslim subgroup other than that of the government to be sentenced to death for alleged terrorist crimes.
Acts of clemency are possible by the victims’ relatives, but they are extremely rare. Should an act of clemency occur, the victims’ relatives receive what is known as “blood money,” which replaces execution as a means of punishment.
Execution method and procedure
The usual method of execution in Saudi Arabia is beheading. Shootings and stonings are also possible, but are used less frequently.
Beheadings usually take place in public places. The bound prisoner is blindfolded and forced to kneel. The executioner gives him a blow and strikes him with the sword at the same time.
In May 2015, eight new executioners were sought by official job advertisement in Saudi Arabia. In addition to beheading, the job profile also includes court-ordered amputations for crimes that are not punishable by death. No special qualifications are otherwise required – the position has been classified as a “religious function”(1).
Execution is a highly respected profession in Saudi Arabia, and executioners take pride in carrying out their executions with only one stroke of the sword: If an executioner had to strike a second time to sever the head of the person being executed from the torso, he would consider it a personal disgrace.
Indictment proceedings and trials
The indictment and investigation proceedings in Saudi Arabia take place in camera. Judges have a great deal of discretion not only because of the lack of transparency, but also because of Islamic law, as this is tied to interpretation and both actions, deeds and statements are always subject to individual interpretation.
Thus, there are hardly any clearly verifiable criteria or objectively comprehensible or verifiable criminal offenses and reasons for sentences. Defendants have little opportunity to defend themselves and are generally shielded from the outside world, including family members. Even persons who were minors at the time of the crime are not excluded from the death penalty.
A typical example of a death sentence under Islamic law in Saudi Arabia is the case of Palestinian-born artist and poet Ashraf Fajadh. Fajadh was initially sentenced to several years in prison for blasphemy. The sentence was reconsidered and commuted to a death sentence on November 18, 2015, on the grounds of apostasy. Sentencing grounds were based on alleged blasphemous oral conversations Fajadh had, as well as poetry texts, which were interpreted as apostasy.
Forced Confessions and Torture
Forced confessions through torture are another point of striking human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. According to research by the organization Reprieve, torture goes so far as to break people’s bones and teeth until they deliver a confession.
Sources and further recommended reading:
“Death Sentences and Executions 2015,” Amnesty International Annual Report, published April 2016;“Death Sentences and Executions 2017,” Amnesty International Annual Report, published April 2018;“Death Sentences and Executions 2018,” Amnesty International Annual Report, published April 2019. (1) Huffington Post/Reuters, May 18, 2015, “Saudi Arabia is hiring eight new executioners,” F.A.Z., Nov. 28, 2015, “Executioners Wanted,” p. 9; Reprieve report, “Justice Crucified: The Death Penalty in Saudi Arabia,” 2015;“Saudi executions pass 150 this year, nearing 2015 total,” Reprieve report, Dec. 19, 2016.
As of June 2020