Saudi Arabia Executes 15 People in 12 Days For Non-Violent Drug Offences

Despite a pledge to end executions for drug offences, most of those executed are foreign nationals, with some killings thought to have been carried out via beheading with a sword.
Max Daly
London, GB
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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia at the G20 Summit in November in Indonesia. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images.

Saudi Arabia has executed 15 people for non-violent drug offences – some thought to be beheaded by sword – in the last 12 days, despite promising to end them. 

In January 2021 the country announced a moratorium on drug-related executions. It came in the wake of the gruesome murder and dismembering of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018 by a Saudi death squad, a hit the CIA said was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  

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But legal NGO Reprieve said that in the last fortnight the regime had quietly resumed secret executions for drug offences. Ten of those executed are foreign nationals, from Pakistan, Syria and Jordan. Five of them – including a man executed on Monday morning – are Saudi nationals. Because executions are carried out behind closed doors and bodies are not returned to families, methods of execution cannot be confirmed. However experts believe people are killed by a mixture of beheading by sword and by shooting.  

Taha al-Hajji, a  former Saudi defence lawyer who specialised in defending people on death row in Saudi Arabia, said executions for drugs had continued because they were only halted two years ago as  a stunt to create good PR for the super-rich Gulf kingdom.  

"The resumption of executions in drug cases after two years of moratorium reveals how Saudi Arabia uses its media power and influence to promote lies. An official promise is made and used politically to whiten its image for a period of time. Then when the lie has fulfilled its purpose, the killings begin again,” Hajji, who works for the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, a Europe-based human rights organisation for documenting and promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia  told VICE World News. 

“It is impossible to believe Saudi propaganda about reform unless it is accompanied by legislation amending laws. The return of executions in drug cases confirms the regime’s complete lack of sincerity in respecting people's lives and its tolerance for bloodshed,” said Hajji, who has had to leave Saudi Arabia for his own safety. 

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“To prove its seriousness, Saudi Arabia must formally change the penalty for deviating from the drug law. In the longer term, truly meaningful reform would require the creation of a penal code, since at the moment the Kingdom is a country with neither a penal code nor a constitution."

 Saudi Arabia has so far executed at least 135 people this year, a big rise compared to 2021 and 2020, despite repeated promises since 2018 to reduce capital punishment. 

There were no drug-related executions carried out on 2021 for the first year in a decade, according to Harm Reduction International (HRI), which surveys the death penalty for drug offences. Before the moratorium was announced, there were at least 84 drug-related executions in 2019, and five in 2020 just before the moratorium was announced.  

"Mohammed bin Salman has repeatedly touted his vision of progress, committing to reducing executions and ending the death penalty for drug offences,” said Maya Foa, Reprieve’s Director. “But as a bloody year of executions draws to a close, the Saudi authorities have begun executing drug offenders again, in large numbers and in secret.”

She said the latest executions came days after it was made official that bin Salman will face no consequences for ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. “Proof once again that when Saudi Arabia’s international partners signal that the regime can kill with impunity, the Crown Prince and his subordinates get the message – and act on it," she added.

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One of those facing imminent execution is Hussein Abo al-Kheir, 57, from Jordan. He was moved to a “death cell’ on Friday after being jailed eight years ago after Reprive said he was tortured into a signing a confession that he was smuggling drugs. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have found Hussein is arbitrarily detained and that his deprivation of liberty “lacks a legal basis”.  

Giada Girelli, senior analyst at HRI, said: “Governments and other actors who were quick to congratulate Saudi Arabia back in 2020 should now be as proactive in condemning this development, and take practical steps to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.”

The decision to resume drug-related executions “will have a particularly tragic impact on low-level offenders and foreign nationals, including migrant workers, who are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation by drug syndicates, as well as to fair trials violations,” she added.

Girelli said this has already been a “horrendous” year for drug related executions, marked by Singapore’s decision to hang 11 people convicted of drug trafficking, and the “skyrocketing” of drug-related executions in Iran. “After promising developments,” said Girelli, “2022 is poised to be the worst year for drug-related executions since 2017.”