Why it’s time for Saudi Arabia to abolish the death penalty

The news that Saudi Arabia plans to abolish the death penalty for people who committed crimes under the age of 18 - with the exception of cases involving the counter-terror law - might seem like progress, but it is only a small and inadequate step on a long journey towards protection of the right to life.

For years, Saudi Arabia has flouted international law which bans the use of the death penalty against people aged under 18 when the crime was committed.

The fact the Saudi Arabia still sentences people to death at all shows the reality of the kingdom’s fundamentally-flawed approach to law and order

But the fact the Saudi Arabia still sentences people to death at all shows the reality of the kingdom’s fundamentally-flawed approach to law and order.

The death penalty can be handed down for a wide range of crimes – including murder, drug offences, apostasy, sorcery and witchcraft – and often after grossly unfair or deeply-flawed trials. Those who are executed are usually beheaded. In some cases in the past, the dead bodies have even been “crucified”.

How many people did Saudi Arabia execute last year?

As Amnesty International’s annual death penalty report revealed last week, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of execution in the world. The Saudi authorities put 184 people to death last year, the highest number recorded using Amnesty International’s research logs citing Ministry of Interior figures since 2000. The majority of executions were for drug-related offences and murder.

A mass execution in April last year saw 37 people killed in one day alone. In total, 32 of them were men from Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority, many of whom were convicted on “terrorism”-related charges after trials that relied on confessions extracted through torture.

One of those executed was Hussein al-Mossalem. He had sustained multiple injuries including a broken nose, broken collar bone and leg fracture while being held in solitary confinement and subjected to beatings, electric shocks and other forms of torture. This brutal approach to meting out this warped form of ‘justice’ must end.

Does the death penalty deter crime?

The truth is that sentencing people to death is a violation of the right to life. There is also the risk of killing innocent people. In Saudi Arabia, court proceedings fall far short of international standards for fair trials. Defendants are rarely allowed formal representation by lawyers, and in many cases are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them.

One of the most striking failings of capital trials documented by Amnesty International is its strong reliance on torture-tainted “confessions”. At least 20 Shi’a men tried by the Specialized Criminal Court in recent years have been sentenced to death on the basis of such “confessions,” with 17 of them already executed.

There is no credible evidence that the death penalty has a greater deterrent effect on crime than imprisonment. In fact, in countries where the death penalty has been abolished, crime rates have often fallen. The fact is that sentencing people to death does not contribute to a safer and more secure society.

Quite simply, the death penalty is a violation of the most fundamental of human rights: the right to life. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.

Saudi Arabia claims to be serious about human rights reforms that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to champion as part of his Vision 2030. If that is the case, then it’s time for the death penalty to be abolished altogether.