On Sunday 28 July, the day before releasing a report on the illegal use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, the prominent progressive Saudi cleric Salman Al-Awdah was due to appear in a secret court with no legal team, to hear the judgement about the death penalty in his case.
He was detained in 2017 after tweeting that he hoped the standoff between Saudi Arabia and Qatar would be resolved peacefully. He has been held in appalling conditions ever since. Among the 37 charges being brought against him is “mocking the government’s achievements” – whether or not this is even true, it is certainly not a crime punishable by death.
Although his hearing has now been postponed until November, the systematic abuse of his human rights, including his right to a fair trial, continues unabated. If the Saudi authorities end up executing him, his case would be an alarming example of how the death penalty is used to silence any criticism in Saudi Arabia. It is unfortunately not the exception but rather the norm.
Mujtaba al-Sweikat, who was executed earlier this year, was only a teenager when Saudi secret police arrested him for protest-related offences. For three years he was held without charge. He was denied any legal assistance and was regularly beaten, burnt with cigarettes, and flogged on the soles of his feet.
As a result of this prolonged torture, Mujtaba eventually confessed to vague “terror charges”. It was this confession – extracted through torture – which formed the basis of his conviction. He was beheaded in a mass execution on 23 April 2019. Despite the international outcry, he was not the only person killed that day who had been a child at the time of the alleged offences.
The families of those that were killed received no warning that they were to be executed. Even in death, Saudi Arabia denies its victims dignity. The mutilated bodies of those killed are often left on public display for extended periods or are not returned to grieving family members. The horror stories of torture and solitary confinement were repeated by the families of many of those executed that day.
It isn’t news that Saudi Arabia is one of the most heavy-handed proponents of the death penalty. What is shocking however, is the alarming increase in its use and, as with the cases of Al-Awdah and Al-Sweikat, the completely arbitrary way in which it is used.
In 2010 there were 27 confirmed executions. In 2015 there were 158 confirmed executions, most of whom were people who had participated in Arab Spring protests in 2013. In the first six months of this year there have already been 134 confirmed executions, with at least another 24 people currently believed to be at imminent risk of being executed.
Saudi Arabia’s recent excessive use of the death penalty has not happened in a vacuum. It comes in the midst of a concerted campaign against human rights defenders and political activists. Since Mohammed bin Salman came to power in 2017, there has been a significant increase in the pressure exerted on critics of the regime. Some 17 political dissidents were arrested in the first half of 2018, many of whom were notable women’s rights campaigners. In April of this year, at least 14 journalists, academics, and family members of women’s rights campaigners were detained. These arrests are sadly accompanied by the all-too-familiar allegations of torture, and the violation of due process norms.
All of this is without even mentioning the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi. I accompanied the UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard to Turkey during the investigation of his murder to review the available evidence, including the grotesque recordings of his killing. Whatever the Saudi authorities might try to say about his murder being the work of rogue actors, their actions show it is part of a systematic abuse and indeed, total disregard for human rights.
It has become clear that international outrage is not enough to stop this illegal and wanton use of the death penalty in the Saudi kingdom. Despite the world’s lens being fully focused on human rights abuses there, very little progress has been made in stopping their arbitrary nature. It is for this reason that I am calling for more concrete action.
The Saudi authorities must declare an official moratorium on the use of the death penalty and allow an international fact-finding mission to go to the kingdom and investigate my findings, get access to those on death row, as well as help prevent prospective rights violations.
Should Saudi Arabia fail to address this growing stain on its human rights record, I also call on other countries to consider the use of targeted sanctions, and on the UN General Assembly to rescind Saudi Arabia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council.
Saudi Arabia draws legitimacy for its actions from the support of other countries who appear indifferent to its flagrant abuse of human rights. For this reason, a withdrawal of support for the G20 meeting which is set to take place in Riyadh next year would send a powerful message to the kingdom. The abuse of human rights should not be tolerated, no matter how big the trade deal.
Baroness Kennedy is a leading barrister and an expert in human rights law, civil liberties and constitutional issues. She was elevated to the House of Lords in 1997. She practices at Doughty Street Chambers
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