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Saudi Arabia - human rights

Jordaniain citizen sentenced to death looks into questionable judiciary in Saudi Arabia

127 bags of Captagon seized from the Islamic State armed group before being destroyed May 31, 2018
127 bags of Captagon seized from the Islamic State armed group before being destroyed May 31, 2018 Wikicommons / Staff Sgt. Christopher Brown

Another case of a questionable arrest, forced confession and death penalty sentence in the world of Saudi Arabian justice.


According to Amnesty International, there were some 993 executions in 23 countries in 2017, with the greatest number of executions taking place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan, in that respective order.

The figures for 2018 have yet to be published, but countries that maintain the death penalty are now in the minority.

Here in France, the National Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty in 1981 and the most recent country to abolish capital punishment for all crimes is Guinea in 2017.

At present, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is under considerable international pressure with regards to its poor human rights record, particularly in cases related to those who speak-up against the country, such as activists and journalists.

In 2019 alone, there have been a reported 23 executions, with 150 executed in 2018. In 2017 that number was 146.

45 people are believed to be on death row in the kingdom since the end of 2017.

A familiar tale

On May 18th 2014, Jordanian national Hussein Abulkheir was arrested upon returning to his month-old job as a driver in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to RFI from Geneva, his sister Zeinab recounted his story as she tries to find a way to get her brother acquitted.

She says her brother was arrested after returning from a visit to his hometown Aqaba, Jordan where his wife and eight children live.

He had just begun working in the Saudi city of Tabuk, after finding it hard to make ends meet running his own tyre repair shop in Aqaba.

After a month of work in Tabuk, he returned home for a visit.

But when crossing the border, he was asked step out of the car in which he was traveling, and the vehicle was then searched.

Drugs were then allegedly found in his car – specifically Captagon, which contains an amphetamine-like stimualnt known as Fenethylline - and he was immediately arrested.

Over the following 12 days, Abulkheir was allegedly tortured and then forced into signing a confession.

Eight months later, without access to a lawyer, he was tried in court and found guilty of smuggling drugs and sentenced to death by beheading.

Abulkheir appealed this sentence and another trial was held, again with no access to a lawyer.

He was once again sentenced to death by the sword.

Eye-for-an-eye punishment

The charge of smuggling drugs into the kingdom is a crime that is not necessarily met by death; that is at the discretion of each judge.

The penal code system in Saudi Arabia is based on the Islamic law principle of qisas, or ‘tit-for-tat’ retributive punishment.

For example, murdering someone is a crime met by the same sentence, death.

But in the case of drug smuggling, there is no exact equivalency, thus a judge is free to decide on the best sentence, as he sees fits.

The judge may also rely on a 1987 fatwa (a non-binding legal ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority) declared by the kingdom’s Council of Senior Religious Scholars that suggests death for any drug smuggler.

According to Human Rights Watch, between 2014 to 2018 the kingdom has executed over 200 people in drug-related cases.

International standards

The League of Arab States put forward ‘The Arab Charter on Human Rights’ that was adopted in Cairo on September 15, 1994.

The charter lays out certain regulations and practices pertaining to humanitarian values.

Such articles include the use of the death penalty, as stated in Part II, Article 10

The death penalty may be imposed only for the most serious crimes and anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence.

Part II, Article 10 Arab Charter on Human Rights

Saudi Arabia ratified the charter in 1994, yet since cases of drug smuggling are still being met with capital punishment, one can assume that drug smuggling is regarded as a “most serious of crimes” that warrants death.

Pressure to abandon capital punishment?

Saudi Arabia has faced numerous calls from across the globe to end the death penalty, or at least adopt a “moratorium on executions” says Human Rights Watch.

But, despite the veneer of reforms introduced by the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Adbulaziz Al Saud, or MBS as he’s often referred to, 2018 alone saw a rise in the number of cases being referred to the death penalty.

A Mecca for Captagon

According to the European Union Institute for Security Studies, there have been reports about Captagon’s “proliferation in the Middle Eastern markets, especially in Saudi Arabia”.

Another article in the online journal ‘Raseef22’ notes that “Saudi Arabia is considered the largest market for importing Captagon…and considered one of the toughest challenges for Saudi Arabian authorities.”

In the black market, a tablet can retail at 12 US dollars. A seizure can be worth nearly 294 million US dollars “according to 2015 prices,” reports EUISS.

The counter-narcotics strategy is run by the Saudi Interior Ministry and is considered “more of an imported security threat rather than a domestic social problem” states EUISS.

In a way, the war against Captagon is similar to the American war on drugs.

Given the opaque legal proceedings against those allegedly charged in connection with Captogon, such as in the case of Abulkheir, it wouldn’t be surprising if a few people were being used as an example to show authorities and locals that the counter-narcotics strategy is in fact working; even if those very people had nothing to do with the drug.

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