BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia executed 20 men over drug convictions in a two-week span earlier this month, quietly resuming capital punishment for drug-related crimes after an unofficial two-year moratorium.
But other promised reforms have faded out of view, including Mohammed’s vow to curtail the use of the death penalty in a country that has long been among the world’s leading executioners. The decision to carry out death sentences for drug offenders after a long pause in the practice comes as Saudi Arabia struggles to contain the illicit trade of amphetamines, which have flooded the region in recent years.
In a 2018 interview with Time magazine, Mohammed said the state has tried to minimize the use of the death penalty, adding that there are some crimes for which Islamic law clearly dictates capital punishment, such as murder. “But there are [a] few areas that we can change it from execution to life in prison,” he said.
Though he did not specify which crimes would be affected, Saudi activists interpreted his statement as referring to the “ta’zir” category, which includes drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes for which the punishment is left to the discretion of the judge.
In 2020, a Saudi official told The Washington Post that the kingdom was in the process of revising penalties for drug-related crimes and that a decision to “abolish” capital punishment for drug offenses was “expected very soon.”
There were only 27 executions in 2020, according to the government-run Human Rights Commission (HRC), an 85 percent drop from the previous year.
In a statement at the time, the HRC said that “the sharp decrease was brought about in part by a moratorium on death penalties for drug-related offenses.”
Rights groups and activists were cautious not to celebrate prematurely. The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) and Reprieve, a London-based human rights organization, said in a joint statement early last year that the decline could be partly attributed to the pandemic lockdown.
In 2021, the number of executions more than doubled to 65. This year, there have already been 147 executions, according to a tally by ESOHR collated from reports in Saudi state media. Eighty-one men were put to death on a single day in March — Saudi Arabia’s largest mass execution in years.
But the 20 men put to death between Nov. 10 and Nov. 23 were the first to be executed for drug-related crimes since 2020.
“What is happening is completely nonsensical,” said Taha al-Hajji, a Saudi lawyer and legal consultant for ESOHR. “It defies the directives of the government and its remarks. Mohammed bin Salman himself came out and proclaimed that they will lessen the punishments.”
“And these aren’t the big bosses,” he continued. “The big bosses get away with it, and the victims are the downtrodden poor.”
Of the 20 men, 15 were sentenced to death for smuggling or receiving amphetamine pills — probably referring to Captagon, a powerful synthetic drug that grew in popularity during the reign of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which would give tablets to fighters to fuel their crimes.
More recently, according to intelligence and law enforcement officials, Captagon has been manufactured in government-controlled parts of Syria and distributed throughout the Middle East and Europe by Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.
Surging abuse of the drug has become a thorn in the side of the Saudi government, which has taken steps to curb smuggling efforts. This included a temporary ban last year on some imports from Lebanon, as millions of pills continue to surface in shipments of food, including hollowed-out pomegranates.
Hussein Abo al-Kheir, a 57-year-old Jordanian national, is one of many men in prison for allegedly smuggling Captagon into Saudi Arabia. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention alleged last month that Abo al-Kheir was subjected to torture before signing a confession and was denied access to legal representation.
Last week, he told his sister, Zeinab Abo al-Kheir, that he was moved to the execution wing at the prison.
“I felt like he was saying goodbye to us,” said Zeinab of the call with her brother, who has been incarcerated since 2014. “He told me, ‘We had relief for two years after Mohammed bin Salman made this decision. So now they have muddled us and made us afraid. Mohammed bin Salman is evading the promises he made.’ ”
Zeinab, 61, said Hussein sounded hopeless and defeated as he recounted how two men were taken from his cell last week to be put to death. Guards have warned him, he told her, that he will be executed sooner if he speaks to the media — a threat Hajji, the rights lawyer, says he has heard from other prisoners.
But Zeinab said her brother urged her to speak out about his case, saying he has no other hope left.
“How can you be a prince who is preparing to become king and you make promises to the media and do something else in the shadows?” she said. “He treats people as if they’re in a slaughterhouse.”