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Saudi Arabia: Jordanian man at imminent risk of execution amid spike in beheadings for drug-related offences

Hussein Abo al-Kheir, a Jordanian man and father of eight who has been on death row since 2015 on a drug-smuggling conviction is at risk of imminent execution, Amnesty International said today, as Saudi Arabia resumes executions for drug-related offences after a two-year moratorium.

Since 10 November 2022, Saudi Arabia has executed 20 people convicted on drug-related charges, 60% of whom were foreign nationals. Dozens more prisoners are feared to be facing the same fate.

Hussein Abo al-Kheir could now be put to death at any moment. He has already seen other detainees from his facility taken away to be executed. These callous executions must end now.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International

“The resumption of executions for drug-related offences in Saudi Arabia mean that Hussein Abo al-Kheir could now be put to death at any moment. He has already seen other detainees from his facility taken away to be executed. These callous executions must end now. Nobody should have to suffer this ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“The Saudi authorities should immediately commute his sentence and the sentences of all those on death row. They must urgently declare a moratorium on all executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty altogether.”

Hussein Abo al-Kheir was arrested on 18 May 2014 by customs officials while crossing from Jordan into Saudi Arabia for allegedly smuggling amphetamine pills. He was detained incommunicado at an unknown location for 12 days and was only able to contact his family two weeks after his arrest. He says that the authorities obtained a ‘confession’ from him by suspending him upside down by his feet and beating him so badly he could no longer hold a pen. In the end, he said he could only ‘sign’ the document using his fingerprint. He later retracted this ‘confession’ before the Tabuk Criminal Court and requested a medical report, but says his claims of torture have not been investigated. He had no access to legal representation or consular assistance throughout his pre-trial detention and court proceedings.

In June 2021, Hussein shared positive news with his family after the authorities told him his death sentence had been suspended and was being reviewed in light of a directive issued by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, which stated that some detainees held on drug offences would be pardoned. Although it was unclear whether this order would apply to those on death row, some detainees held within his facility were released.

Since then, however, the authorities have not said anything to Hussein about the status of his case, and as Saudi Arabia has once again ramped up its use of executions for drug-related offences, Hussein’s family are living in agony knowing that he could be executed at any moment.

Hussein’s sister, Zainab Abo al-Kheir, told Amnesty International: “Hussein called us yesterday and told us that the prison authorities took a Saudi man from his ward to be executed yesterday, and that two weeks ago two Jordanians were taken to be executed. We felt like he was preparing us for his imminent death, as if he was telling us ‘goodbye’. We don’t know what will happen to Hussein, but how is it possible that the authorities might execute him at any moment without telling us? Our anger and desperation are unexplainable.”

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Hussein is being arbitrarily detained and that his deprivation of liberty “lacks a legal basis”, before recommending that Saudi Arabia “quash his death sentence” and “immediately and unconditionally release him.”

Today, on 1 December, UN experts raised concerns that Hussein Abo al-Kheir “may soon be executed” and called on the Saudi government to establish an official moratorium on all executions with a view to fully abolishing the death penalty.

Background

In January 2021, the Saudi Human Rights Commission said the country had introduced a moratorium on executions for drug-related crimes, and that “the Kingdom and its justice system are focusing more on rehabilitation and prevention”.

Between February 2020 and October 2022, Saudi Arabia did not carry out any executions for drug-related offences, but the moratorium on executions was never enshrined in law, which provides that drug smuggling or related crimes are punishable by death under tazir (the judge’s discretion). Between 2016 and 2020, the Saudi authorities executed at least 987 people, including 232 Saudi and foreign nationals convicted on drug-related offences.

Saudi Arabia has already carried out 148 executions this year. In March, the authorities executed 81 people in a single day – the largest mass execution in years –  including 41 people who were from the country’s Shi’a minority. The authorities have also continued to hand down death sentences to men from the Shi’a minority, including those who were under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crimes.