The U.N. Human Rights Office is expressing alarm at the significant increase in the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. It says the number of people executed in 2011, a total of 79, was almost three times higher than in 2010
Last month, one woman was executed on charges of sorcery and witchcraft, said spokesman Rupert Collville.
“What is even more worrying is that court proceedings often reportedly fall far short of international fair trial standards, and the use of torture as a means to obtain confessions appears to be rampant," Colville said. We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to respect international standards guaranteeing due process and protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, to progressively restrict the use of the death penalty and to reduce the number of offenses for which it may be imposed.”
Colville said people face the death penalty for a wide range of offenses and crimes, including drug offenses, murder, sorcery, rape, blasphemy, apostasy and adultery. Most executions are by beheading and foreigners are more frequently subjected to the death penalty than Saudi citizens.
He added the U.N. Rights Office is also concerned at the sentence of so-called cross amputation handed down to six men convicted of highway robbery, explaining that the amputation of a single limb is punishment for theft, whereas cross or double amputation is for highway robbery.
“On December 24, the Supreme Court upheld the sentences, which will involve amputation of the men’s right hands and the left feet," Coleville said. "So that is why it is called cross-amputation. It is one limb on either side. We call on the authorities to halt the use of such blatantly cruel, inhuman, degrading punishment. As a party to the Convention Against Torture, Saudi Arabia is bound by the absolute prohibition against the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In a report in the English daily Arab News this week, Saudi officials say they are making progress in addressing human-rights issues. The National Society for Human Rights chairman Mufleh Al-Qahtani said after a meeting with Saudi's interior minister that "doors are open to the society to reinforce human rights,” especially among prisoners and women.
U.N. rights spokesman Colville said it is likely that the Committee Against Torture will review and condemn Saudi Arabia’s practice of amputation as punishment when it meets later this year.
Saudi Arabia is increasingly applying the death sentence at a time when the global trend is toward abolition of capital punishment, according to Coleville. He added some 140 states now have either completely abolished or declared a moratorium on the death penalty and urged the oil-rich kingdom to follow suit.