The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saudi Arabia says it executed 27 people in 2020, the lowest number in years, rights groups say

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the first session of the Saudi-Bahraini Coordination Council, virtually from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 24, 2020. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy Of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — Saudi Arabia said Monday that 27 people were executed in the kingdom last year, the lowest number since at least 2013, according to two human rights organizations that track the use of the death penalty in the kingdom.

The drop in executions appeared partly linked to coronavirus lockdowns, as well as an “unofficial” moratorium on executions for some nonviolent offenses, the two organizations, Reprieve and the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, said in a joint statement released Monday.

Saudi Arabia’s government-run Human Rights Commission said in a statement that the 27 executions in 2020 represented an 85 percent decrease from the previous year.

In the past, Saudi Arabia’s frequent use of the death penalty, including in mass executions, had earned the kingdom international criticism and notoriety as a global leader in capital punishment, along with China and Iran.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who serves as the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler, spoke publicly about abolishing the death penalty for some crimes two years ago. In April, the government announced that minors would no longer face the death penalty in certain cases.

Saudi Arabia, a world leader in executions, weighs ending capital punishment for drug crimes

A Saudi official told The Washington Post in August that the kingdom was in the process of revising penalties for drug-related crimes and that a decision to abolish capital punishment for such offenses was expected “very soon.” Nearly 40 percent of the roughly 800 executions carried out in the kingdom over the past five years were for crimes such as drug trafficking, according to Reprieve, which advocates for the abolition of capital punishment.

But months later, the Saudi government has not announced any official change in penalties for drug-related offenses and has yet to publish a royal decree that would formalize the moratorium on child executions, according to Reprieve and ESOHR.

In the meantime, at least three people convicted of crimes allegedly committed when they were juveniles remain on death row in Saudi Arabia, the groups said. And they warned that the number of people put to death could rise again this year, citing the increased rate of executions in December 2020.

Drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes belong to a category of offenses in Saudi Arabia known as “tazir,” in which punishments are left to the discretion of a judge. The last execution for such a crime in the kingdom was Jan. 14, 2020, according to cases monitored by ESOHR, James Suzano, the organization’s legal director, said in a text message.

Subsequent executions last year were imposed on people convicted of murder or aggravated assault, he said.

The statement Monday by the Saudi Human Rights Commission suggested that the ban on capital punishment for narcotics-related crimes was continuing. “The moratorium on drug-related offenses means the kingdom is giving more nonviolent criminals a second chance,” Awwad Alawwad, president of the commission, was quoted as saying.

Maya Foa, Reprieve’s director, said that “the apparent progress being made in Saudi Arabia is clearly driven by a desire to clean up its international image,” according to the joint statement.

“If Mohammed bin Salman is serious about reform, Saudi Arabia should release the young men sentenced to death for childhood crimes and publish laws protecting vulnerable drug mules from execution,” she said.

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