By Sarah Dadouch
A Saudi man carries his coffee pot as he walks past a banner showing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside a mall in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, in February 2020. (Amr Nabil/AP)
BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia has executed 120 people in the first six months of 2022, according to a rights organization, nearly double the number put to death in all of last year despite its promises to reduce capital punishment.
As early as 2018, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, spoke of curtailing the death penalty, one of a string of public promises made by the young prince as he ramped up efforts to modernize the kingdom.
After a major drop in 2020, 65 people were put to death in 2021; then in just the first six months of this year, the number of executions nearly doubled. By June, the numbers for this year had exceeded those of 2020 and 2021 combined, according to a statement from the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) sent to media Aug. 9.
“If Saudi Arabia continues to execute people at the same pace during the second half of 2022, they will reach an unprecedented number of executions, exceeding the record high of 186 executions in 2019,” the report stated.
The year 2020 saw a dramatic decline in executions: The government-run Human Rights Commission said only 27 took place that year, compared with a record number the year before.
Rights groups and activists treated the news with caution, with the ESOHR and Reprieve saying in a joint statement in early 2021 that the decline could be partly be attributed to the lockdown in 2020 from February to April, during which “the government carried out no executions due to restrictions to control the virus.”
Most of the executions in 2022 took place on one day in March when 81 men were put to death in the single largest mass execution in years. New York-based Human Rights Watch quoted activists as saying that 41 of those killed belonged to the Shiite sect of Islam, whose adherents are largely seen as heretics by many hard-line Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
Shiites have long complained of marginalization in the country and are viewed with suspicion by many Sunnis, who often see them as sympathizers of rival Iran, the world’s largest Shiite country.
The ESOHR found that in the March mass execution, which the group said was the largest in Saudi history, 58 of the 81 men were executed for nonlethal offenses, and 41 were executed for participation in pro-democracy protests. None of the bodies were returned to the families, the group added.
Families typically push to retrieve bodies of those executed but are frequently faced with stonewalling from the government. One reason may be that public funerals could turn into protests or the graves could become rallying points.
In a statement that announced the mass execution in March, the Interior Ministry said the order was to carry out death sentences for “those who had embraced deviant thought, and other deviant methods and beliefs.” It linked some of the men to terrorist activities.
Last August, seven United Nations officials penned a letter to the Saudi government concerning the cases of two Shiite men, Mohammed al-Shakhouri and Asaad Shubbar, who had been sentenced to death. The letter — signed by the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, among others — said the trials of the two men “did not meet due process guarantees and [were] for crimes which do not appear to meet the ‘most serious crimes’ threshold as required under international law.”
The two men were part of March’s mass execution. The ESOHR said this decision “exemplifies the opacity in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system.”
According to the ESOHR’s data, collated from government announcements, 72 of this year’s executions were for “discretionary offenses,” crimes not specified in Islamic law, despite promises by Mohammed to end the use of the death penalty for such offenses.
Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism law has long been criticized by the United Nations. To make matters murkier, punishments often depend on the judge’s discretion, leading to inconsistency and arbitrariness in verdicts.
Saudi Arabia says it is in the process of codifying its laws. In February, the crown prince announced plans to approve a set of four new draft laws, including personal status law and the penal code for crimes whose punishments are not detailed in Islamic law.
While no men have been executed so far this year for crimes committed as minors, human rights groups have been raising the alarm for a while about several cases, namely that of Abdullah al-Howaiti, who is on death row after being convicted of robbing a jewelry store of more than $200,000 in gold, wounding two employees and fatally shooting a police officer. He was 14 at the time of the crime.
Another case is that of Jalal Labbad, who faces charges including participation in demonstrations when he was 15 years old. The ESOHR said Labbad was arrested and his house raided in 2017 without an arrest warrant nor an accusation before the raid, and was later denied his right to legal counsel and subjected to many forms of torture and ill-treatment.
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