Capital punishment is a legal penalty in Saudi Arabia, and is based on Shari'ah (or Islamic law).
The wide range of crimes which can result in the death penalty and the use of public beheading are condemned internationally. In 2011, the Saudi government reported 26 executions in the country. Amnesty International counted a minimum of 79 in 2013. Foreigners accounted for "almost half" of executions in 2013, mainly on convictions for drug smuggling and murder, although there has not been any report of a Western national being executed in the recent history of Saudi Arabia. In 2015, the number of beheadings reached a two decade high of "at least" 157 and 47 were executed on 2 January 2016.
Death sentences in Saudi Arabia are pronounced almost exclusively based on the system of judicial sentencing discretion (tazir) rather than Sharia-prescribed (hudud) punishments, following the classical principle that hudud penalties should be avoided if possible. The rise in death sentences during recent decades resulted from a concerted reaction by the government and the courts to a rise of violent crime in the 1970s and paralleled similar developments in the U.S. and China.
Saudi Arabia is one of the last four countries that still carry out public executions.
Saudi Arabia has a criminal justice system based on a hardline and literal form of Shari'ah law reflecting a particular state-sanctioned interpretation of Islam.
The death penalty can be imposed for a wide range of offences including murder, rape, false prophecy, blasphemy, armed robbery, repeated drug use, apostasy, adultery, witchcraft and sorcery and can be carried out by beheading with a sword, or more rarely by firing squad, and sometimes by stoning.
The 345 reported executions between 2007 and 2010 were all carried out by public beheading. The last reported execution for sorcery took place in August 2014. There were no reports of stoning between 2007 and 2010, but between 1981 and 1992 there were four cases of execution by stoning reported.
Crucifixion of the beheaded body is sometimes ordered. For example, in 2009, the Saudi Gazette reported that "An Abha court has sentenced the leader of an armed gang to death and three-day crucifixion (public displaying of the beheaded body) and six other gang members to beheading for their role in jewelry store robberies in Asir." (This practice resembles gibbeting, in which the entire body is displayed).
In 2003, Muhammad Saad al-Beshi, whom the BBC described as "Saudi Arabia's leading executioner", gave a rare interview to Arab News. He described his first execution in 1998: "The criminal was tied and blindfolded. With one stroke of the sword I severed his head. It rolled metres away...People are amazed how fast [the sword] can separate the head from the body." He also said that before an execution he visits the victim's family to seek forgiveness for the criminal, which can lead to the criminal's life being spared. Once an execution goes ahead, his only conversation with the prisoner is to tell him or her to recite the Muslim declaration of belief, the Shahada. "When they get to the execution square, their strength drains away. Then I read the execution order, and at a signal I cut the prisoner's head off," he said.
As of 2003, executions have not been announced in advance. They can take place any day of the week, and they often generate large crowds. Photography and video of the executions is also forbidden, although there have been numerous cases of photographed and videoed executions in the spite of the law against them.
The Saudi judiciary can impose the death penalty according to three categories of criminal offence in Sharia law:Hudud: Fixed Quranic punishments for specific crimes. Hudud crimes which can result in the death penalty include apostasy, adultery, and sodomy.
Qisas: Eye-for-an-eye retaliatory punishments. Qisas crimes include murder. Families of someone murdered can choose between demanding the death penalty or granting clemency in return for a payment of diyya, or blood money, by the perpetrator. A trend has developed of exorbitant blood-money demands: a recent report mentions a sum of $11 million demanded in exchange for clemency.
Tazir: A general category, including crimes defined by national regulations, some of which can be punished by death, such as drug trafficking.
A conviction requires proof in one of three ways:
- An uncoerced confession.
- The testimony of two male witnesses can result in conviction. This excludes "hudud crimes", in which case a confession is also required.
- An affirmation or denial by oath can be required.
Giving an oath is taken particularly seriously in a religious society such as Saudi Arabia's, and a refusal to take an oath will be taken as an admission of guilt resulting in conviction.
People convicted of treason can be sentenced to death, as with many other countries.
Saudi law allows the death penalty for many crimes. For example:
In practice, the death penalty has also been used to sentence political protestors. Ali al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhoon were both arrested at the age of 17 in 2012 during Arab Spring protests in the Eastern Province, tortured, forced to confess, and sentenced to decapitation in 2014 and 2015. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an independent sheikh critical of the Saudi government and popular among youth and Ali al-Nimr's uncle, was also arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death by the Specialized Criminal Court in 2014 for his role in encouraging political protests. Nimr al-Nimr was executed on January 2, 2016, along with 46 other people, mostly terrorists arrested in the 2000s.
In order for an individual to be convicted in a Saudi sharia law court of adultery, he/she must confess to the act four times in front of the court; otherwise four pious male Muslim who witnessed the actual sexual penetration must testify in front of the court. If the witnesses were spying on the defendants or intentionally watched the defendants commit adultery, their uprightness would be called into question and a conviction for adultery would not take place According to the Islamic sharia law, the burden of proof is on the accuser; and if only one of those witnesses retracted his/her testimony then the accused will be acquitted and the remaining witnesses will be prosecuted for perjury Quran 24:4.
The execution method for adultery for men and women is stoning. If the conviction was established based on confession, a retraction of the confession or the defendant leaving the pit while stoning is taking place results in the penalty being stayed. If the conviction was established based off the testimony of four witnesses, the witnesses must initiate the stoning, and failure to do so results in the execution being stayed. Sandra Mackey, author of The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, stated in 1987 that in Saudi Arabia, "unlike the tribal rights of a father to put to death a daughter who has violated her chastity, death sentences under Qur'anic law [for adultery] are extremely rare." Mackey explained that "[c]harges of adultery are never made lightly. Since the penalty is so severe, women are protected from unfounded accusations of sexual misconduct." During a human rights dialogue with European jurists that took place several years before 1987, a Saudi delegate acknowledged that it is difficult to have a person convicted of adultery. According to Mackey, in a 20-year period ending in 1987, one woman "is acknowledged to" have been executed by stoning for adultery.
Murder is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. If a murderer pays a family of the victim blood money, and the family approves of the choice, the murderer will not be executed. The criminal justice system waits until the family makes a decision on whether the family of the victim will accept blood money or if the family of the victim will choose to have the murderer executed, or to completely forgive the perpetrator.
Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri, who was found in possession of talismans, was executed in the southern Najran province in June 2012. A Saudi woman, Amina bin Salem Nasser, was executed for being convicted of practising sorcery and witchcraft in December 2011 in the northern province of Jawf, and a Sudanese man (Abdul Hamid Bin Hussain Bin Moustafa al-Fakki) was executed in a car park in Medina for the same reason in September 20, 2011.
A public beheading will typically take place around 9am. The convicted person is walked into the square and kneels in front of the executioner. The executioner uses a sword known as a sulthan to remove the condemned person's head from his or her body at the neck. Sometimes it may take several strikes before victim is decapitated. After the convicted person is pronounced dead, a loudspeaker announces the crimes committed by the beheaded alleged criminal and the process is complete. This is the most common method of execution in Saudi Arabia because it is specifically called for by Sharia Law. Professional executioners behead as many as ten people in a single day. The severed head is usually sewn back on.
The use of public beheading or stoning as the methods of capital punishment and the number of executions have attracted strong international criticism. Several executions, particularly of foreign workers have sparked international outcries. In June 2011, Ruyati binti Satubi, an Indonesian maid, was beheaded for killing her employer's wife, reportedly after years of abuse. A video of the execution, posted online, drew extensive criticism. In September 2011, a Sudanese migrant worker was beheaded for sorcery, an execution which Amnesty International condemned as "appalling". In January 2013 a Sri Lankan maid named Rizana Nafeek was beheaded after she was convicted of murdering a child under her care, an occurrence which she attributed to the infant choking. The execution drew international condemnation of the government's practises, and led Sri Lanka to recall its ambassador. These are not isolated cases. According to figures by Amnesty International, in 2010 at least 27 migrant workers were executed and, as of January 2013, more than 45 foreign maids were on death row awaiting execution.