The number of executions in Saudi Arabia has surged in the past nine months. The kingdom on Wednesday announced its 89th execution this year, roughly as many as in all of 2014, according to human rights groups.
“It’s absolutely scary what we’re seeing in terms of the numbers of executions in Saudi Arabia,” said Amnesty International’s Saudi Arabia researcher Sevag Kechichian.
The rise began last August after Islamic State militants attacked cities and towns in Iraq and Syria, gaining control of large areas with alarming speed.
The increase in executions could be a show of force by Saudi authorities as they seek to keep a regional security crisis outside their borders, Kechichian said.
“The theory is: the reason why the Saudi authorities have been carrying out executions at such a rate,” he explained, “is because they want to signal to ISIS, to others throughout the region, that they are quite in charge… and they will punish transgressions extremely harshly. It is sort of a show of power.”
There are alternate theories to explain the surge, like increased efficiency in the judiciary, Kechichian added.
A public act
Most executions are carried out in public spaces, like town squares, and the condemned are beheaded. On rare occasions, the decapitated bodies are left on display.
“It is pretty much within the logic of the method of execution and the reasoning behind the execution that it is meant toward spectacle, as a deterrent,” Kechichian said. “So that is partly why they do it in public.”
The Saudi government has not commented on the practice or the surge in numbers, other than saying capital punishment is within Islamic law, according Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Adam Coogle. Trials in Saudi Arabia, he added, do not appear to meet international standards of fairness.
“Some people allege that they were coerced into confessing,” Coogle said. “Some people claim they had difficulty accessing lawyers. One of the big issues is the defendants not actually initially knowing the charges against them ... before they are actually brought before a judge.”
Twenty-two countries in the world still use capital punishment, according to Amnesty International. Saudi Arabia is consistently among the top five countries that perform the most executions, along with China, Iran, Iraq and the United States.
Nearly half of all executions in Saudi Arabia are for non-violent crimes related to drug trafficking, and occasionally people are executed for other crimes like adultery or sorcery, said Coogle.
“Under international law [the death penalty] should be reserved for only the most serious crimes,” he argued. “In terms of the way Saudi Arabia carries out the death penalty the most problematic aspect are all the drug-related executions.”
Sheikh Nimr case
Last year, popular Shi'ite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was sentenced to death after being accused of disobeying the ruler, inciting sectarian strife, and encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations. His case has sparked protests around the world and, if carried out, the sentence could increase Sunni-Shia tensions in Saudi Arabia and beyond.
But recent Saudi efforts to appease its discontented Shia minority suggest the execution is unlikely to go forward, according to Kuwait-based analyst Haider Ghadhanfari.
“Saudi Arabian government’s policy is to heal the nation and there have been several signs that the rulers plan to grant amnesty,” said Ghadhanfari.
The potential for political upheaval could delay or cancel the execution, but al-Nimr’s trial was politicized and lacking evidence, according to Amnesty’s Kechichian, and some authorities appear to be determined to carry out the sentence.
“It’s a mix of signals,” he said. “The authorities are very much insisting on this and they seem to want to go forward with it.”
“At the same time,” he added. “There are these question marks on the meaning and significance of carrying out an execution on such a very well-known person on basis of a flawed trial.”