Executions for Drug Offenses in Saudi Arabia Skyrocket as Western States Continue Support for Regime

With the 13th World Day Against the Death Penalty set to take place on October 10, attention turns to one of the most prolific killer states, supported by Western governments despite its atrocious human rights abuses – Saudi Arabia.

Executions for drug-related offenses in the country have surged from 4 percent of all executions in 2010 to 47 percent of all executions in 2014 and 2015 (up to June), according to an August report by Amnesty International.

This is doubly significant in light of the uptick in overall executions carried out in past years; Human Rights Watch reported that Saudi Arabia had already executed 135 people from January to September 15 this year, surpassing annual totals from 2013 (at least 78 executions) and 2014 (90 executions).

Indonesia’s execution of eight people on a single day in April this year on drug trafficking charges drew widespread international condemnation, monopolizing the debate on execution for drug-related crimes. Yet Saudi Arabia, perhaps because of its longstanding disregard for human rights, has escaped with relatively little scrutiny of its appalling judicial abuses.

Executions for drug-related offenses are merely the most visible and shocking manifestation of Saudi Arabia’s deeply flawed and iniquitous legal system; a system regularly in violation of international human rights norms.

As well as regular non-access to lawyers and/or translation services for non-Arabic speakers, and confessions extracted under torture, the Kingdom lacks a criminal code, instead imposing a system of Shari'a Law. This is supplemented by royal decrees on crimes against public order -- called ta’zir crimes -- not specified in the Qur’an, for example, cybercrime and drug offenses.

As a result of the loose definition of what constitutes a drug-related offense, judges are handed enormous powers when it comes to interpretation. Amnesty International states: “For ta’zir crimes, suspicion alone can serve as the basis of evidence, even for crimes punishable by death under ta’zir, such as drug-related offenses. In such cases, the judge is granted the right to use discretion to establish that the evidence supports the accusations against a suspect and that it is enough to punish someone to death.”

Executions for drug-related offenses are in violation of international law; Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifies that the death penalty may only be applied for "the most serious crimes," and the United Nations Human Rights Committee has clearly stated that non-violent drug offenses do not fall into this category. 

None of Saudi Arabia's actions have deterred Western governments who frequently preach the rhetoric of human rights and democracy from supporting the regime. Just last month, WikiLeaks exposed a secret 2013 vote-trading deal between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia guaranteeing mutual support for election to the UN Human Rights Council, a farcical nomination given Saudi Arabia's state-sanctioned misogyny, repression of democratic initiative and commitment to brutal judicial sentences including public lashings, beheadings and amputation.

Also exchanged was a $100,000 payment from Saudi Arabia for "expenditures resulting from the campaign to nominate the Kingdom for membership of the human rights council for the period 2014-2016," as one of the leaked diplomatic cables revealed.

Interestingly, despite extolling the importance of teaching children the "British Values" of "freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law [and] belief in personal and social responsibility," David Cameron has failed to intervene in the upcoming execution by beheading and crucifixion of democracy activist Mohammed al-Nimr, arrested at the age of 14. Saudi Arabia’s position as the biggest purchaser of UK military hardware, worth $1.7 billion last year alone -- over a quarter of the UK’s total arms exports -- is probably not unrelated to successive British governments’ willingness to overlook the country’s appalling human rights record.

By no means is the UK the sole hypocrite here. The eulogies that erupted from various Western governments following the death of King Abdullah is testament to the power of Riyadh’s economic clout worldwide. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, described him, with no hint of irony, as a “strong advocate of women,” while the US Secretary of State John Kerry pined that “The United States has lost a friend, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, and the world has lost a revered leader,” reported the Guardian.

The blindingly obvious lack of interest from  governments in the fundamental dignity and rights of the people in Saudi Arabia highlights that the disturbing upward trend in executions for non-violent crimes including drug offenses will likely continue unabated. The World Day Against the Death Penalty is an opportunity to refocus public attention on these abuses and Western hypocrisy. The people of Saudi Arabia deserve nothing less.