Executions plunge 85% in 2020 as Saudi Arabia halts drug-related sentences

Questions about death-penalty reforms remain.

Members of Magic Movement, a group of young Bangladeshis, stage a mock execution scene in protest of Saudi Arabia beheading of eight Bangladeshi workers in front of National Museum in Dhaka October 15, 2011. Eight Bangladeshi migrants have been beheaded in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh in public  (photo credit: REUTERS/ANDREW BIRAJ)
Members of Magic Movement, a group of young Bangladeshis, stage a mock execution scene in protest of Saudi Arabia beheading of eight Bangladeshi workers in front of National Museum in Dhaka October 15, 2011. Eight Bangladeshi migrants have been beheaded in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh in public
(photo credit: REUTERS/ANDREW BIRAJ)
Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty plunged 85% in 2020 after the kingdom suspended drug-related executions, its Human Rights Commission said on Monday. The change is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms, which already barred the execution of minors in some or all cases.
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The number of executions last year fell to 27 as a result “in part … of a moratorium on death penalties for drug-related offenses,” the commission said in a news release. It also touted other reforms, such as King Salman’s royal decree last March last year to make the 2018 death-penalty ban for those under 18 years old “retroactively applicable.”
However, the parameters of these reforms are still unknown, including whether the moratorium on drug-related death sentences would continue through 2021. Another unknown is whether there is a total ban on executing minors.
“There was a discrepancy between the royal order [in March] and the announcement that was made by the Human Rights Commission and other bodies later on,” Dana Ahmed, Saudi Arabia researcher at Amnesty International, told The Media Line. “The royal order said that this order does not apply to individuals who were tried for charges under the counter-terror law.”
“That’s one major loophole, as it may not apply to all crimes because the law is unclear,” she added.
Khalid Ibrahim, the executive director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, said that the law on minors was not in use until 2020. On April 23, 2019, Saudi Arabia executed 37 prisoners, including one who had been arrested for participation in a demonstration at the age of 17.
He told The Media Line that there was another loophole in the law.
“The 2018 Juvenile Law allows the execution of children in cases of retribution but prohibits it in discretionary cases,” he said.
Reuters reported Monday that two human rights groups had said that at least five adults who had committed crimes as minors remained on death row. They include Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoun, Abdullah al-Zaher and Mohammed Al-Faraj, the news agency said.
The Saudi Human Rights Commission news release said the death-penalty moratorium will apply to those individuals, but it is unclear whether their punishment has been officially changed.
Human rights groups said that even with these reforms, more are necessary.
“We’d like to see a commitment to ending the use of the death penalty for all juveniles,” Ahmed said. “We’d also like to see ending the death penalty for drug-related crimes, which account for at least half, if not more than half, of executions.” Amnesty’s ideal is abolition of the death penalty and the holding of fair trials.
“In almost all cases where the death penalty was handed down, we’ve seen trials that are grossly unfair,” Ahmed said. “There are fair-trial concerns from the moment individuals are interrogated without a lawyer, with confession-based evidence sometimes extracted by torture or other ill treatment, throughout their detention, where they are not usually allowed access to legal representation and, oftentimes, their families.”
The kingdom’s reforms are part of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 plan to improve its image, but he also has critics.
“Saudi Arabia has a reputational problem. This is directly related to the disastrous policies of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman [MBS],” Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, told The Media Line. “Several issues stand out: his murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, his war crimes in Yemen, his repression at home, especially of women-rights activists, such as Loujain al-Hathloul.
“MBS’s close embrace of [US President] Donald Trump has further damaged his image on the global stage.”
Riyadh wants to increase international business ties in preparation for the days when fossil fuels are no longer the main source of energy.
“Saudi Arabia is spending millions of dollars to repair its image. It has hired lobbyists in every major Western capital, especially Washington, DC, to press its case,” Hashemi said. “It’s trying to send a message that liberal reforms have taken place, such as the removal of the ban on women driving.”
“Most of the Saudi PR strategy is directed at sending a message that the Kingdom is undergoing a major economic transformation and [that] it is a good place for investment, forget its horrendous human rights problem,” he added.
In the Saudi Human Rights Commission news release, its president, Awwad Alawwad, said: “The moratorium on drug-related offenses means the Kingdom is giving more non-violent criminals a second chance.“
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights’ Ibrahim said that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record overall did not improve last year.
“Saudi Arabia failed in its bid to join the UN Human Rights Council in October 2020 … receiving only 90 votes,” he said.
Ibrahim contrasted this performance to the 152 votes the kingdom received in 2016, enabling it to serve as a council member in 2017 for two years.
“Surely this is a reflection of how much worse the human rights situation has become that governments across the globe are not willing to accept Saudi Arabia as a member of the UN Human Rights Council,” he said.
“Massive violations of people's rights are happening on daily basis,” he added.
The kingdom’s Human Rights Commission did not respond to a request for comment.