This week, Saudi Arabia announced the executions of Awad al-Rowaili and Lafi al-Shammary. These two men had been found guilty of smuggling amphetamines in the northern region of Jawf, the official Saudi Press Agency reported on Tuesday. Their executions were followed on Wednesday by news of the killing of Hussein Daghriri in the southern province of Jazan. Daghriri had been found guilty in a murder, the SPA reported.
In a country that allows executions for relatively minor crimes, such as drug smuggling and even "sorcery," these deaths are not unusual. They are, however, significant: With these deaths, Saudi Arabia has now executed at least 89 people in 2015. That's more people than were executed in all of 2014, even though we are not even halfway through the year. In fact, it's the largest number of known executions in that nation since 2008.
If current trends keep up, Saudi Arabia might have executed around 214 people by the end of the year. That would mean that 2015 is busiest year for Saudi executioners in quite a while (perhaps not coincidentally, the Ministry of Civil Service recently posted a job listing seeking applications for executioners positions).
It is worth pointing out that, in Saudi Arabia's opaque criminal justice system, all of this information should be taken with a grain of salt. This is the total number of Saudi executions known by the international community (and compiled, in this case, by Cornell University Law School's Death Penalty Worldwide), and there may well have been more executions not known about. It's also possible that the rise in executions we are seeing now will taper off abruptly before the end of the year.
But the apparent increase is clearly remarkable, and it becomes more concerning when you consider two recent developments in the Saudi world: the death of Saudi King Abdullah and the international criticism that has been heaped on Saudi Arabia over the past year or so -- although a close examination of these factors shows that no one development seems to be a smoking gun.
First, it is understandable that people would link Saudi Arabia's new King Salman with a rise in executions. In the short time he's been running the country, the new Saudi leader has already made some pretty dramatic changes to domestic politics, and embarked upon strong military action in Yemen.
But whatever Salman's role in it, the start of the rise in executions appears to have predated him. Last August, months before Abdullah died, Saudi Arabia beheaded 26 people. Human rights groups were deeply alarmed. “The current surge in executions in Saudi Arabia is yet another dark stain on the kingdom’s human rights record,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Aug. 21.
The backlash over Saudi Arabian human rights violations over the past few months could also be a factor. Saudi Arabia has lashed out angrily against critics, such as Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom, and refuted those who compared its use of beheadings to the extremist Islamist group the Islamic State. Some analysts suspect that the uptick in executions could be an attempt to show strength to the Islamic State and hardliners within Saudi Arabia.
Yet it's likely there are other factors at play, too. Ali Adubisi, director of the Berlin-based European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, told AFP that poverty could be responsible for the rise in executions, many of which relate to drug offenses. According to Reuters, some diplomats have speculated that the appointment of a number of new judges has helped ease a backlog of cases, which are now being heard -- with more death penalties handed out as a result. If that's true, the uptick in executions might simply be the grim result of a better functioning bureaucracy.
Still, even if Saudi Arabia's upward trend continues, it may not catch up to the countries that eventually execute the most in 2015. Iran and China executed far more people than Saudi Arabia last year (China's numbers are so high and its criminal justice system so secretive, that Amnesty International, which compiles data on global executions, is unable to offer an accurate estimate). If places like Egypt and Nigeria actually carry out all the death sentences courts the have handed out, 2015 will be a bumper year for executions globally.