Fear on death row in Saudi Arabia rises as executions increase

Relatives of those on death row in Saudi Arabia fear every day could be the last for their loved ones as the Gulf kingdom ramps up executions.

After a nearly five-month lull in which no one has been executed, AFP estimates, based on state media reports, that 24 people have been executed since the beginning of October, 18 of them in the past two weeks.

Among them are 16 people convicted of drug-related crimes after the end of the moratorium on the use of the death penalty for such crimes, announced in January 2021.

For Zeinab Abo al-Khair, whose brother Hussein has been on death row since 2015, the surge was the start of a period of anxious anticipation.

“We can’t contact him. We always wait for his contact. Sometimes we wait for six months or more, which of course puts us under psychological pressure and extreme terror,” a Jordanian citizen from Canada, where she lives, told AFP.

Saudi authorities often give advance notice of executions in murder cases, primarily for the benefit of the families of murder victims, says Duaa Daini, a researcher at the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR).

In most other cases, however, executions are only announced after the fact.

This means that relatives of death row inmates often learn about executions like everyone else: from state media reports that do not mention the names of those executed, Daini said.

Sometimes other prisoners have to contact their families with bad news.

Families “don’t get that chance to say goodbye to a loved one,” she said.

– “Terrible and very sad” –

The United Nations on Tuesday condemned the surge in executions, especially for drug-related crimes, calling them a “deeply regrettable step” that is “inconsistent with international norms and standards.”

Human rights groups say Hussein Abo al-Khair’s case highlights shortcomings in Saudi justice system that need to end full death penalty.

Zeinab said the 57-year-old Jordanian was arrested in 2014 while crossing the Saudi Arabian border, where he worked as a family driver in the city of Tabuk.

Both Zeinab and the UK-based NGO Reprieve say Hussein endured 12 days of torture before signing a confession to drug smuggling.

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They say he didn’t have access to a lawyer.

AFP was unable to independently verify these claims, and Saudi authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that there were no legal grounds for Hussein’s detention.

Last week, Hussein contacted a relative in Jordan to say that he had been transferred to an area of ​​the prison in Tabuk reserved for prisoners whose execution is imminent, according to his sister.

“He is very scared and very sad because he is sure that he was treated unfairly,” Zeinab said.

“He is waiting for the moment of his death, being decapitated by a sword, after a completely unfair trial.”

State media reports did not go into detail about how the recent executions were carried out, but the wealthy Gulf kingdom frequently carried out death sentences by beheading.

– A call for “mercy” –

Saudi Arabia announced 144 executions this year as of Wednesday, according to AFP tally, more than double last year’s total of 69 executions.

An international outcry erupted in March when 81 people were executed in a single day in the kingdom for crimes related to terrorism.

ESOHR is aware that 54 people are currently on death row, including eight minors, but Dhaini said the figure is likely far from complete.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, said in an interview with The Atlantic magazine that the kingdom has “got rid” of the death penalty, except in cases of murder or when someone “threatens the lives of many people.” a transcript released by state media in March.

A moratorium on drug-related executions was announced by the Saudi Arabian State Human Rights Commission, although it was never enacted into law.

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Among those who hope the current spate of executions will end soon are the family of Adnan al-Shraid, a Jordanian who was taken into custody in 2017 after customs officials accused him of trying to smuggle over 60,000 tablets of an amphetamine known as Captagon.

As in the case of Hussein Abo al-Khair, Shraida’s relatives believe that he confessed under torture and are pleading with the Saudi authorities to spare his life.

“I am asking that Saudi Arabia give people accused of non-violent acts a second chance and look at their families with the eyes of pity and mercy,” said Shraida’s daughter, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.

“Please save my father from execution.”