Saudi Arabia: Death by discrimination

The Saudi Arabian government continues to execute people at an average of more than two a week, Amnesty International said in a new report today. Almost half of them – a disproportionately high number in relation to the local population – are foreign nationals from poor and developing countries.

“We had hoped that the much-heralded human rights initiatives introduced by the Saudi Arabian authorities in recent years would bring an end to – or, at least, a significant reduction in the use of the death penalty. Yet, in fact, we have witnessed a sharp rise in executions of prisoners sentenced in largely secret and unfair trials, making the need for a moratorium more urgent than ever,” said Malcolm Smart, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

In 2007, there was a sharp increase in executions, with a total of at least 158 people put to death compared with 39 executions monitored by Amnesty International in 2006. So far this year, Amnesty International recorded a further 71 executions to the end of August, and the organisation fears that there could be a new surge of executions in the coming weeks following the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

“The Saudi Arabian government’s continuing high use of the death penalty runs counter to the growing international trend towards abolition,” said Malcolm Smart. “Moreover, the death penalty is carried out disproportionately and discriminately on national or ethnic grounds against poor foreign workers and Saudi Arabian nationals who lack the family or other connections that, fortunately, help others to be saved from execution.”

All too often the defendants, particularly poor foreign migrant workers from developing countries in Africa and Asia, have no defence lawyer and are unable to follow the court proceedings which are in Arabic. They and many of the Saudi Arabians who are executed also have no access to influential figures such as government authorities or heads of tribes, nor to money, both crucial factors in securing a pardon.

“The process by which the death penalty is imposed and carried out is harsh, largely secretive and grossly unfair. Judges, all men, have wide discretion and can hand down death sentences for vaguely-worded and non-violent offences,” said Malcolm Smart. “Some migrant workers have even been unaware that they had been sentenced to death until the very morning of their execution.” 

Execution is usually by beheading, generally in public. In some cases, crucifixion follows execution.

Saudi Arabia is one of the few states in the world with a high rate of executions for women. It is also one of the few remaining countries to execute people for crimes they committed when they were still under the age of 18, in breach of international law.

“It is high time for the Saudi Arabian government to step up to the plate on this issue and respect its obligations under international law,” said Malcolm Smart. “As an elected member of the UN’s Human Rights Council, the government should move quickly to reverse this ghastly trend and bring Saudi Arabia’s legal and judicial practices into conformity with international standards. It must ban the death penalty for children, ensure fair trials, address rampant discrimination, and curtail judges’ discretionary powers in the use of this cruel, inhumane, and degrading punishment.”

Note to editors:

Amnesty International has documented Saudi Arabia’s extensive use of the death penalty for over a quarter of a century. This report is the organization’s latest evaluation following the legal, judicial and human rights changes introduced in recent years in Saudi Arabia. The organization has, however, been unsuccessful in seeking a visit to the country to conduct research.

Amnesty International’s Saudi Arabia experts are available for interviews and briefings in English, French and Arabic. For more information, please call Nicole Choueiry, Middle East and North Africa Press Officer on +44 (0) 7831 640 170, or +44 (0) 207 413 5511.