Saudi Arabia reports dramatic drop in executions in 2020

Kingdom’s Human Rights Commission says 27 sentenced to death last year, a decrease of 85% over 2019; drop partially due to moratorium on death penalty for drug offenses

In this March 22, 2018, file photo, an honor guard member is covered by the flag of Saudi Arabia, in Washington (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)
In this March 22, 2018, file photo, an honor guard member is covered by the flag of Saudi Arabia, in Washington (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

RIYADH — Saudi Arabia on Monday reported a sharp drop in executions in 2020, as the kingdom seeks to blunt international criticism of its human rights record.

The Gulf state, an absolute monarchy, has long faced criticism for one of the world’s highest rates of executions and what human rights campaigners call an opaque judicial system.

The Saudi government’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) said it documented 27 executions in 2020, a decrease of 85 percent over the previous year due in part to a moratorium on the death penalty for drug-related offenses. Many of those executed for such crimes were often poor Yemenis or low-level drug smugglers of South Asia descent, with the latter having little to no knowledge of Arabic and unable to understand or read the charges against them in court.

“The Commission welcomes this news as a sign that the kingdom and its justice system are focusing more on rehabilitation and prevention than solely on punishment,” HRC president Awwad Alawwad said in a statement.

“The moratorium on drug-related offenses means the kingdom is giving more non-violent criminals a second chance.”

Illustrative — Iranian protesters hold placards and shout slogans during a demonstration in Tehran on January 8, 2016, against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities (AFP PHOTO)

Saudi Arabia put 184 people to death in 2019, according to Amnesty International, which said it was the highest number ever recorded in a single year in the kingdom.

Amnesty International ranked Saudi Arabia third in the world for the highest number of executions in 2019, after China where the number of executions is believed to be in the thousands, and Iran. Among those put to death that year by Saudi Arabia were 32 minority Shiites convicted on terrorism charges related to their participation in anti-government protests and clashes with police.

Britain-based campaign group Reprieve reported 25 executions in Saudi Arabia in 2020, saying it was the lowest figure since it began monitoring executions in 2013 but cautioned that the number could increase this year.

“The decline can partly be attributed to the Covid-19 lockdown from February to April, when the government carried out no executions due to restrictions to control the virus,” Reprieve said in a statement. “However, there is reason to believe that the number of executions will rise in 2021.

“The government recommenced executions at an increased rate in the final quarter of 2020: approximately one-third of all executions last year were carried out in December alone.”

Monday’s announcement by the HRC follows a string of judicial reforms in 2020.

Last April, the HRC said the kingdom was ending the death penalty for those convicted of crimes committed while aged under 18.

Citing a royal decree, the HRC said individuals convicted as minors would receive a prison sentence of no more than 10 years in a juvenile detention facility.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a virtual summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 22, 2020. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

Last April, the HRC also announced Saudi Arabia was abolishing court-ordered floggings, in a move welcomed by campaigners.

The changes underscore a push by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernize the ultra-conservative kingdom, long associated with a fundamentalist strain of Islam.

Activists, however, are skeptical that the reforms will see political prisoners released or pause a sweeping government crackdown on dissent.

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