Saudi Arabia says it cut executions by 85 per cent in 2020

Campbell MacDiarmid
·2 min read
Saudi Arabia, for years one of the world's most prolific executioners, dramatically reduced the number of people put to death in 2020 - AP
Saudi Arabia, for years one of the world's most prolific executioners, dramatically reduced the number of people put to death in 2020 - AP

Saudi Arabia dramatically reduced its use of capital punishment by 85 percent in 2020 after it stopped executing non-violent drug offenders, the kingdom’s Human Rights Council said on Monday.

The kingdom, which in recent years was a top executioner globally after China and Iran, executed 27 people last year, the HRC said. In 2019, Saudi Arabia carried out a record 184 prisoners, according to independent rights groups.

"The commission welcomes this news as a sign that the kingdom and its justice system are focusing more on rehabilitation and prevention than solely on punishment,” HRC President Awwa Alawwad said in a statement. “The moratorium on drug-related offences means the kingdom is giving more non-violent criminals a second chance.”

The announcement comes as US president-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office on Wednesday. Mr Biden has promised to take a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia’s rights record, which has come under increased scrutiny since the killing of journalist Jamal Khoshoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.

Saudi Arabia has made changes to its justice system in recent years as part of efforts by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to portray himself as a reformer and the kingdom as a modern state opening up to the outside world.

The 35-year-old has sought to curtail the influence of ultraconservative Wahhabists, who adhere to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, including by stripping religious police of arrest powers and ordering judges to end public floggings.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia announced a ban on capital punishment for crimes committed by minors and in 2020 applied the ban retroactively, according to the HRC, a government organisation.

Those sentenced to death for crimes committed while a minor are now being re-sentenced in juvenile facilities for up to 10 years, Mr Alawwad said.

Rights watchdog groups welcomed the announcement but said the kingdom could do more to improve its justice system.

Saudi authorities should reform "the country's horribly unfair and biased criminal justice system that hands down these sentences," Human Rights Watch Deputy Middle East Director Adam Coogle told the Associated Press.

"As authorities announce reforms, Saudi prosecutors are still seeking the death penalty for high-profile detainees for nothing more than their peaceful ideas and political affiliations," he said. "Saudi Arabia must immediately end all executions and death sentences for non-violent crimes."