Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wrongful Deaths: Saudi Arabia’s Execution Policies

Saudi Arabia executed seven young men this morning for the crime of robbery. That might seem a bit extreme, but in the Kingdom, there is no official Penal Code that outlines crimes and their associated punishment. Thus death sentences are handed down by judges based upon their subjective interpretation of Shari’a law. While the most infamous punishment for simple theft in the country is the removal of the offending limb, executions are incredibly common in Saudi Arabia, earning the condemnation of the international community. 345 people were beheaded publicly between 2007-2010 and a person was executed on charges of “sorcery” as recently as 2012. The human rights situation in the country is dismal all around: torture abounds in places of detention, unfair trials using forced confessions as the sole piece of evidence are widespread, and arbitrary detention is commonplace for any criticism of government policies. Yet the use of the death penalty as a final solution to get rid of people the government views as “unwanted” is perhaps the most disturbing.

Protests against the use of the death penalty in KSA, courtesy of EuroNews

The seven young men who lost their lives today allegedly committed a series of armed robberies in 2006 while they were between 21-24 years old. Their youth alone would persuade most judges that imprisonment, not execution would repay their debt to society. Yet despite the fact that the young men were impoverished, committing robberies separately out of desperate need rather than participating in a coordinated criminal conspiracy, all were sentenced to death for allegedly plotting the thefts together. Arrested in 2006 and held for 3 years before being brought to trial (another violation of their right to a fair and speedy trial) six of the men were sentenced to death by firing squad and the supposed “ringleader” was sentenced to be beheaded and then crucified. Even more concerning are allegations of all seven undergoing torture to force the confessions that eventually led to their conviction. The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, stated: “This is not only in breach of Saudi Arabia’s international obligations under the international law, which imposes an outright prohibition on torture, it is also in breach of the Government’s international obligation under the convention against torture that explicitly forbids the use of all forms of torture for the purpose of extracting confessions or acquiring information[1].”

Other bodies of the UN were also unsuccessful in stopping the executions that took place this morning. “In countries that have not abolished the death penalty, capital punishment may be imposed only following a trial that complied with fair trial and due process safeguards, said the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns. The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had also called for a halt to the executions since the men’s detentions had been judged to be arbitrary. Despite the international pressure, the allegations of torture to extract confessions, and the paltry evidence against the men, their fates were sealed by firing squad and once again Saudi Arabia is implicated in a case of extrajudicial killings.

A Saudi executioner proud to do "God's work"

Human rights violations are hard to prosecute. The Special Procedures bodies of the UN, as I have written previously, lack any kind of coercive enforcement power, and thus can at most make strong recommendations to governments. It is also up to the Saudi Arabian government whether or not it respects these recommendations and in cases such as the one of the “seven robbers,” it often chooses to ignore them. What’s worse, what the judge determined to be the appropriate sentence for the seven men wasn’t even outside the law. Without an established criminal and penal code, the Kingdom’s human rights situation hangs in the balance and judges can choose to respect or violate human rights at their whim, usually to the victim’s detriment.

Yet calling for the implementation of a criminal code or any kind of institutional reform is itself criminal: hundreds if not thousands of human rights defenders and political activists are currently housed in deplorable conditions in Saudi jails, leading to a wave of protests in the last few years staged by their spouses, children, mothers and fathers. Despite opinion after opinion of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention judging these activists’ detentions to be arbitrary in nature, the Saudi government persists in its repression of any kind of dissent. The only hope is a double-edged sword: when the country’s oil supplies start to dwindle as they are predicted to in the next few decades, the international community will be more willing to act to remedy the human rights violations committed daily by the government. At the same time, Saudi Arabia will be left without the cash cow that has enriched its society, meaning an extremely uncertain future for those not already wealthy from petrol dollars as those that depend on them grasp to hold onto power.

Without reforms, unfortunately, cases like those of seven young men, who broke the law out of real desperation because of a life lived in poverty, will continue to occur in the Kingdom. In the country that houses the holiest site of Islam, a religion that in its very name calls for peace, the words of one of the young men Nasser al-Qahtani should echo in its leaders’ ears: "We did not kill anyone, we did not kill anyone... Why this sentence?"[2]