Capital punishment in Saudi Arabia
Death sentences in Saudi Arabia are pronounced almost exclusively based on the system of judicial sentencing discretion (tazir) rather than Sharia-prescribed (hudud) punishments, following the classical principle that hudud penalties should be avoided if possible. The rise in death sentences during recent decades resulted from a concerted reaction by the government and the courts to a rise of violent crime in the 1970s and paralleled similar developments in the U.S. and China in late 20th century.
Saudi Arabia has a criminal justice system based on a hardline and literal form of Shari'ah law reflecting a particular state-sanctioned interpretation of Islam.
It is usually carried out publicly by beheading with a sword. A recent report by the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) shows that the number of beheadings in the kingdom during the first quarter of 2018 rose by over 70 percent compared to the same period last year. Occasionally they can be performed by shooting.
A public beheading will typically take place around 9am. The convicted person is walked into the square and kneels in front of the executioner. The executioner uses a sword known as a sulthan to remove the condemned person's head from his or her body at the neck. After the convicted person is pronounced dead, a police official announces the crimes committed by the beheaded alleged criminal and the process is complete. The official might announce the same before the actual execution. This is the most common method of execution in Saudi Arabia because it is specifically called for by Sharia law. Professional executioners behead as many as ten people in a single day.
Crucifixion of the beheaded body is sometimes ordered. For example, in 2009, the Saudi Gazette reported that "An Abha court has sentenced the leader of an armed gang to death and three-day crucifixion (public displaying of the beheaded body) and six other gang members to beheading for their role in jewelry store robberies in Asir." (This practice resembles gibbeting, in which the entire body is displayed).
In 2003, Muhammad Saad al-Beshi, whom the BBC described as "Saudi Arabia's leading executioner", gave a rare interview to Arab News. He described his first execution in 1998: "The criminal was tied and blindfolded. With one stroke of the sword I severed his head. It rolled metres away...People are amazed how fast [the sword] can separate the head from the body." He also said that before an execution he visits the victim's family to seek forgiveness for the criminal, which can lead to the criminal's life being spared. Once an execution goes ahead, his only conversation with the prisoner is to tell him or her to recite the Muslim declaration of belief, the Shahada. "When they get to the execution square, their strength drains away. Then I read the execution order, and at a signal I cut the prisoner's head off," he said.
Saudi law theoretically allows the death penalty for many crimes:
- Drug smuggling
- Armed robbery
- Burglary if aggravated circumstances, including recidivism
- Adultery (Unmarried adulterers can be sentenced to 100 lashes, married ones can be sentenced to stoning.)
- Sorcery or witchcraft
- Waging war on God
Murder is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. If a murderer pays a family of the victim blood money, and the family approves of the choice, the murderer will not be executed. The criminal justice system waits until the family makes a decision on whether the family of the victim will accept blood money or if the family of the victim will choose to have the murderer executed, or to completely forgive the perpetrator.
The Saudi judiciary can impose the death penalty according to three categories of criminal offence in Sharia law:
- Hudud: Fixed Quranic punishments for specific crimes. Hudud crimes which can result in the death penalty include apostasy, adultery, and sodomy.
- Qisas: Eye-for-an-eye retaliatory punishments. Qisas crimes include murder. Families of someone murdered can choose between demanding the death penalty or granting clemency in return for a payment of diyya, or blood money, by the perpetrator. A trend has developed of exorbitant blood-money demands: a recent report mentions a sum of $11 million demanded in exchange for clemency.
- Tazir: A general category, including crimes defined by national regulations, some of which can be punished by death, such as drug trafficking.
- An uncoerced confession.
- The testimony of two male witnesses can result in conviction. This excludes "hudud crimes", in which case a confession is also required.
- An affirmation or denial by oath can be required.
In order for an individual to be convicted in a Saudi sharia law court of adultery, he/she must confess to the act four times in front of the court; otherwise four pious male Muslims who witnessed the actual sexual penetration must testify in front of the court. If the witnesses were spying on the defendants or intentionally watched the defendants commit adultery, their uprightness would be called into question and a conviction for adultery would not take place According to the Islamic sharia law, the burden of proof is on the accuser; and if only one of those witnesses retracted his/her testimony then the accused will be acquitted and the remaining witnesses will be prosecuted for perjury Quran 24:4.
The execution method for adultery for men and women is stoning. If the conviction was established based on confession, a retraction of the confession or the defendant leaving the pit while stoning is taking place results in the penalty being stayed. If the conviction was established based off the testimony of four witnesses, the witnesses must initiate the stoning, and failure to do so results in the execution being stayed. Sandra Mackey, author of The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, stated in 1987 that in Saudi Arabia, "unlike the tribal rights of a father to put to death a daughter who has violated her chastity, death sentences under Qur'anic law [for adultery] are extremely rare." Mackey explained that "[c]harges of adultery are never made lightly. Since the penalty is so severe, women are protected from unfounded accusations of sexual misconduct". During a human rights dialogue with European jurists that took place several years before 1987, a Saudi delegate acknowledged that it is difficult to have a person convicted of adultery. According to Mackey, in a 20-year period ending in 1987, one woman "is acknowledged to" have been executed by stoning for adultery.
Princess Misha'al was shot several times in the head for adultery in 1977.
Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri, who was found in possession of talismans, was executed in the southern Najran province in June 2012. A Saudi woman, Amina bin Salem Nasser, was executed for being convicted of practising sorcery and witchcraft in December 2011 in the northern province of Jawf, and a Sudanese man (Abdul Hamid Bin Hussain Bin Moustafa al-Fakki) was executed in a car park in Medina for the same reason in September 20, 2011. In 2014, Mohammed bin Bakr al-Alawi was beheaded on 5 August for allegedly practicing black magic sorcery
2016 mass execution
On January 2, 2016, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 47 imprisoned civilians convicted for terrorism in 12 different provinces in the country. Forty-three were beheaded and four were executed by firing squads. Among the 47 people killed was Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The execution was the largest carried out in the kingdom since 1980.
The use of public beheading as the methods of capital punishment and the number of executions have attracted strong international criticism. Several executions, particularly of foreign workers have sparked international outcries.
In June 2011, Ruyati binti Satubi, an Indonesian maid, was beheaded for killing her employer's wife, reportedly after years of abuse. A video of the execution, posted online, drew extensive criticism.
In January 2013 a Sri Lankan maid named Rizana Nafeek was beheaded after she was convicted of murdering a child under her care, an occurrence which she attributed to the infant choking. The execution drew international condemnation of the government's practises, and led Sri Lanka to recall its ambassador.
These are not isolated cases. According to figures by Amnesty International, in 2010 at least 27 migrant workers were executed and, as of January 2013, more than 45 foreign maids were on death row awaiting execution.
In practice, the death penalty has also been used to sentence political protestors. Ali al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhoon were both arrested at the age of 17 in 2012 during Arab Spring protests in the Eastern Province, tortured, forced to confess, and sentenced to decapitation in 2014 and 2015. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an independent sheikh critical of the Saudi government and popular among youth and Ali al-Nimr's uncle, was also arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death by the Specialized Criminal Court in 2014 for his role in encouraging political protests. Nimr al-Nimr was executed on January 2, 2016, along with 46 other people, mostly terrorists arrested in the 2000s. From the available sources about Nimr al-Nimr case it seems that Saudi officials use the term "terrorism" as cover label for "thought crimes" which would be in other countries considered as normal work of opposition politician. In the list of accusations against Nimr al-Nimr there is mention about "taking up arms against the security forces" but the details of what exactly happened are missing. It is not clear if some member of Saudi armed forces was injured or killed by Nimr al-Nimr and what happened before the incident.
Although there is no exact definition of the term "terrorism", the most common meaning is "to use intentionally indiscriminate violence as a means to create terror or fear, in order to achieve a political, religious or ideological aim ... against civilians or non-combatants". Also most terrorist attacks are characterised by long-term planning so clearly there is subtle difference between common crime (even with lethal consequences) and act of terrorism. Based on previous experience with human rights violation in Saudi Arabia there are strong reasons to take the statements of Saudi officials that Nimr al-Nimr is convicted terrorist with suspicion. This is supported by fact that in the list of offenses done by Nimr al-Nimr most of them are purely "thought crimes" like "disobeying the ruler", "inciting sectarian strife" and "encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations".
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