Executions have soared in Saudi Arabia amid widening pursuit of politically motivated death sentences, mass death penalty trials, and use of the death penalty against female activists, according to a European-based Saudi human rights organization. In its 2018 Death Penalty Report: Saudi Arabia’s False Promise, issued January 16, 2019, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) said Saudi Arabia conducted at least 149 executions in 2018, more than double the number conducted in 2013, continuing a four-year surge the group associates with the ascension of King Salman to the throne in January 2015. Half of those executed were foreign nationals, including 33 from Pakistan and women from Ethiopia and Indonesia. ESOHR reported that the Saudi government concealed at least one execution and failed to announce the execution of the Indonesian woman, and the human rights group expressed concern that the actual number of executions in the country may be higher.
The Saudi royal family has sought to deflect international criticism of its escalated use of the death penalty by pointing to the use of capital punishment by the United States and other countries. In an April 2018 interview with TIME magazine, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deflected a question on whether the Kingdom would reduce the number of public beheadings and executions in his country, saying: “I believe until today the United States of America and a lot of states, they have capital punishment. We’ve tried to minimize [its use],” he said, and suggested that the monarchy was working with the Saudi parliament on an initiative to change punishments for some offenses from execution to life in prison. The ESOHR report, however, said bin Salman’s statement “is not reflected in the death penalty statistics of 2018. Execution rates have sky rocketed [sic] in the last four years [and] do not indicate any attempts to ‘minimise’ or ‘reduce’” death penalty use.
ESOHR’s report catalogues an intensified use of “politically motivated death sentences … against an increasing spectrum of government critics,” including human rights advocates, non-violent clerics, and other political opponents. It lists among the politically motivated death sentences the case of Israa al-Ghomgham, the first female activist to face execution in Saudi Arabia for non-violent human rights-related work. Al-Ghomgham was detained in December 2016 during a raid on her home. Her case is being prosecuted in Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, which was established to address acts of terrorism. However, Oliver Windridge – an international human rights lawyer who has written briefs supporting al-Ghomgham – says that its “focus appears to have moved from terrorist suspects to human rights defenders and anti-government protesters.” The ESOHR report describes the terrorism charges against al-Ghomgham as “trumped up” and the trial proceedings as “grossly unfair.” UN human rights experts also have condemned the prosecution, saying that “[m]easures aimed at countering terrorism should never to be used to suppress or curtail human rights work.”
ESOHR says that 59 Saudi prisoners are currently at risk of imminent execution, including eight who were minors at the time of their purported crimes and twelve men convicted of spreading the Shia faith and allegedly spying for Iran.