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Saudi Arabia Hit a 'Grim New Milestone' for Beheadings in 2015

Saudi Arabia reportedly carried out 158 executions in 2015, more than twice as many as the previous year and the most in the country since 1995.
Photo by Shahzaib Akber/EPA

Saudi Arabia's executioners had an unusually busy year in 2015, beheading nearly twice as many people as they did the year before and the most in nearly two decades, according to human rights groups.

The conservative Muslim kingdom executed 158 people in 2015, versus 90 the previous year, Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Adam Coogle told the Associated Press.

The number of prisoners put to death for non-lethal offenses, such as illicit drug use, also surged. Sixty-three people were executed for drug offenses as of November this year, which comprised 40 percent of all state killings, according to an Amnesty International report. In 2010, less than 4 percent of Saudi executions were for drug crimes.


Amnesty International criticized the wave of executions, calling it "a grim new milestone" in Saudi Arabia's use of the death penalty.

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"The Saudi Arabian authorities appear intent on continuing a bloody execution spree which has seen at least 151 people put to death so far this year — an average of one person every two days," said James Lynch, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International, when the report was released in November. "The use of the death penalty is abhorrent in any circumstance but it is especially alarming that the Saudi Arabian authorities continue to use it in violation of international human rights law and standards, on such a wide scale, and after trials which are grossly unfair and sometimes politically motivated."

The last time Saudi Arabia executed more than 150 people in a single year was in 1995, when 192 executions were recorded, according to Amnesty. The Saudi Arabian government does not report annual tallies of the people it kills, so it is up to outside monitoring groups and news organizations to keep track.

Saudi Arabia has long been ranked among the top five countries to use capital punishment. It ranked third in 2014, after China and Iran, and ahead of Iraq and the United States, according to Amnesty International. The same five countries executed the most prisoners in the first six months of 2015. Information about the death penalty is considered a "state secret" in China, but Amnesty researchers believe the country executed more people than the rest of the world's nations combined.


In general, the death penalty is disproportionately used against foreigners in Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty. Of the 63 people executed this year for drug-related charges, 45 were foreigners. As of November, at least 71 foreigners had been executed. The foreigners are mostly guest workers from Southeast Asia. Amnesty said this group is particularly vulnerable since they typically do not speak Arabic and are denied adequate translation in court.

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Saudi Arabia beheaded its 158th person just this past Tuesday. Joselito Zapanta was a Filipino man who had spent almost six years on death row for killing a Sudanese man. Murder is automatically met with capital punishment in the kingdom, as are crimes such as adultery and apostasy.

Beheading with a sword is the most common method of execution, but the killings are also occasionally carried out by firing squad, according to Amnesty.

This 20-year high in executions came during the first year Saudi Arabia's new King Salman's reign. Salman rose to power after the death of King Abdullah in January 2015, and has moved to consolidate authority among his own branch of the royal family. Upon assuming power, he shook up the cabinet, appointed a new minister of justice, and placed functionaries loyal to him in positions of power throughout the state bureaucracy.

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