A Saudi official said 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.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal government discussions.
Executions have long been at the heart of global criticism of Saudi Arabia, highlighting an opaque justice system that puts large numbers of people to death every year, generally by beheading. Until recently, many executions were carried out in public squares.
In the last few years, Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, has lagged behind only Iran and China in annual executions, according to data published by the Death Penalty Information Center.
Human rights advocates said they would welcome any reduction in executions but said the government had yet to produce evidence of a policy change. The government, for instance, has not issued a revised law or informed death row inmates that sentences would be commuted.
So far this year, executions appear to have fallen dramatically: Since January, at least 16 people have been put to death, compared with 140 in the same period in 2019 and 88 in 2018, according to tallies by the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, or ESOHR. The group and other organizations said it was unclear whether the decrease was due to the coronavirus pandemic or part of a government-imposed moratorium.
“We hope. Always, we are praying,” said Zeinab Abo al-Kheir, whose brother, Hussein Abo al-Kheir, a Jordanian national, was convicted in 2015 of drug-trafficking charges and could be executed at any time, according to Reprieve, which has advocated on his behalf.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, spoke of abolishing the death penalty for some crimes two years ago. In an interview with Time magazine, Mohammed said there were a “few areas” where it would be possible to reduce death sentences to life in prison, without specifying what crimes would be affected.
Saudi authorities do not appear to be contemplating ending capital punishment for murder and several other crimes for which penalties are prescribed by Islamic law. But drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes generally belong to a category of offenses known as “tazir,” in which punishments are left to the discretion of a judge.
Judges rely on a 1987 ruling by religious scholars that prescribes the death penalty for people who bring drugs into the country, as well as a 2005 law that calls for capital punishment in drug-trafficking cases, according to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch on drug-related executions.
Hussein Abo al-Kheir, the death row inmate, was arrested after crossing the border from Jordan into Saudi Arabia in May 2014 and was charged with possessing narcotics after the authorities said they found a large quantity of amphetamines in the car, according to a summary of his case by ESOHR.
He confessed after he was tortured for nearly two weeks, the group said. He later recanted, but a court found him guilty of drug trafficking and sentenced him to death, largely based on his confession, according to ESOHR. His sister, Zeinab, who lives in Canada, said Hussein has eight children and had been working as a driver for a Saudi family at the time of his arrest.
Saudi Arabia’s leaders have searched for ways to repair the country’s global image since Saudi government agents killed and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018. The kingdom has also faced criticism for twice in recent years carrying out mass executions of people convicted of “terrorism” charges, many in trials that were criticized as unfair by human rights groups.
In one of the mass executions, in April 2019, 37 people were put to death, including at least two who were minors at the time of their alleged crimes.
“Certainly, the authorities have been looking for ways they can implement reforms on some of the issues they find embarrassing, and which have given Saudi Arabia a really bad reputation,” said Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who follows Saudi Arabia, referring to changes that have granted women more rights and abolished punishments like flogging.
Whatever the motivations, though, “these are important steps forward. If they follow through with this, there are a lot of people who won’t die,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s advisory Shura Council has over the past year discussed ending the death penalty for the category of crimes left to a judge’s discretion, according to local media reports. And in April, the government announced that minors would no longer be put to death for such crimes.
“Basically, they stopped executing people for nonviolent offenses in February,” said James Suzano, the director of legal affairs for ESOHR. It was impossible to know whether the moratorium was deliberate or a consequence of the pandemic, which had slowed the work of state institutions, but there was “a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing to Saudi Arabia taking this idea seriously,” Suzano said, referring to a partial execution ban.
But, he added, “we have not seen any implementing legislation.”
An article in July in the Times of London quoted unnamed sources as saying a law on ending the death penalty for nonviolent tazir crimes had not yet been finalized.
A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to questions about whether the country’s policy on the death penalty had changed.
Abdullah Alaoudh, a visiting assistant professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a critic of the Saudi government, said the kingdom’s approach to revising the death penalty, if confirmed, reminds him of a quote from Malcolm X: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and then pull it out six inches, there’s no progress, is there?”
The Saudi efforts were “better than the whole knife,” said Alaoudh, whose father, Salman al-Awda, a popular Saudi cleric, is imprisoned and facing the death penalty in the kingdom after criticizing the monarchy.
“I think it is good that they are thinking this way,” he said, adding that it was not just Saudi executions that needed to be scrutinized, but “the whole criminal procedure system.”