Photo Credit: Luke Richard Thompson via Wikimedia
Dira Square in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a.k.a. 'Chop Chop Square,' used for beheadings.

Saudi Arabia has executed 48 people since the beginning of 2018, half of them for nonviolent drug crimes, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. According to HRW, many more people convicted of drug crimes remain on death row following convictions by Saudi Arabia’s “notoriously unfair criminal justice system.”

“It’s bad enough that Saudi Arabia executes so many people, but many of them have not committed a violent crime,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director. “Any plan to limit drug executions needs to include improvements to a justice system that doesn’t provide for fair trials.”


Saudi Arabia has carried out nearly 600 executions since the beginning of 2014, more 200 of which were in drug cases, according to HRW. The vast majority of the remainder were for murder, but other offenses included rape, incest, terrorism, and… sorcery.

(A few examples: Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri, who was found in possession of talismans, was executed in June 2012; a Saudi woman, Amina bin Salem Nasser, was executed for practicing sorcery and witchcraft in December 2011; a Sudanese man, Abdul Hamid Bin Hussain Bin Moustafa al-Fakki, was executed in a car park in Medina for witchcraft September 2011.)

Saudi courts rely on a 1987 fatwa by the country’s Council of Senior Religious Scholars which prescribed the death penalty for any “drug smuggler” who brings drugs into the country, as well as on provisions of a 2005 Law to Combat Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which prescribes the death penalty for drug smuggling.

According to HRW, international standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights which was ratified by Saudi Arabia, require countries that apply the death penalty to use it only for the “most serious crimes,” and in exceptional circumstances. In 2012, the United Nations ruled that the death penalty should be limited to cases in which a person is intentionally killed and not used to punish drug-related offenses.

HRW has documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system that makes it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial even in capital cases. Saudi authorities do not always inform suspects of the charges against them or allow them access to evidence, even after trial sessions have begun. The authorities generally do not allow lawyers to assist suspects during interrogation and often bar them from examining witnesses and presenting evidence at trial. Non-Arabic speaking foreigners face even more overwhelming obstacles, as they generally do not understand the court procedures and are unable to submit defense documents.


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