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Saudi Arabia put 184 people to death in 2019, the highest number Amnesty International has ever recorded in a single year in the country, despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s public commitment to reducing the number of executions.
Amnesty International released a 59-page report Monday that found that while global executions last year hit a 10-year low, falling by 5 percent compared to 2018, executions in Saudi Arabia increased by 23 percent, from 149 in 2018.
The London-based rights group Reprieve reported this month that Saudi Arabia had carried out its 800th execution since King Salman bin Abdulaziz assumed power in 2015, and that the rate of executions has doubled under his reign.
As of last week, Amnesty had recorded 789 executions under the king.
Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the country's death penalty record.
The kingdom's judicial system is opaque and the numbers of people executed over the years varies slightly, as do rights groups' records as to which year had the highest execution toll prior to 2019. Amnesty International said it started publishing annual reports on executions and death sentences in 2008.
For Saudi analysts and dissidents abroad, the uptick in the number of executions is further evidence that Saudi rulers have declined to rethink the country’s commitment to human rights in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
“All those figures point to the general deterioration in human rights across the board that we’ve monitored for some time in relation to arrests, the use of torture and other human rights abuses,” said Josh Cooper, deputy of director of London-based ALQST, which advocates for human rights in Saudi Arabia.
“The death penalty is another violation which has gone in line with that trend of a real deterioration in civil and political rights.”
It also comes after Prince Mohammed told Time in 2018 that the kingdom was working to reduce its number of executions. Asked whether there was an initiative to do so, the crown prince responded: “Yeah, of course it’s an initiative. But we will not get it 100 percent, but to reduce it big time.”
The majority of executions recorded by Amnesty in the kingdom last year were for drug-related offenses and murder. However, the rights group also documented the increased use of the death penalty as a political weapon against dissidents from the country's Shiite Muslim minority. Saudi Shiites have long complained of discrimination in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
Last April, 37 men were executed at once, 32 of whom were Shiite. Eleven were convicted by the country’s notorious Specialized Criminal Court for spying for Iran, and 14 for participating in anti-government protests, according to Amnesty International.
The court was established in 2008 to try terror-related cases, but rights groups and Saudi dissidents say it has increasingly been used to quash dissent. They say defendants tried by the court have faced unfair trials without lawyers and some have been convicted based on "confessions" extracted through ill-treatment or torture.
Since being appointed crown prince in 2017, Prince Mohammed has presented himself as a reformer eager to transform the kingdom's deeply conservative society. He has instituted a series of social reforms such as allowing women to drive and loosening strict male guardianship laws, which prevent Saudi women from making important decisions without the consent of a male relative.
But he has also presided over sweeping crackdowns on dissent, arresting intellectuals, clerics, women’s rights activists and members of the royal family. In October 2018, the international community shuddered with revulsion when details of the Khashoggi’s murder came to light. The CIA concluded that Prince Mohammed had ordered the killing, according to a person briefed on the agency’s assessment.
Adullah Alaoudh, whose father, Salman Alaoudh, a popular cleric in the kingdom, is in custody in Riyadh and could face the death penalty, said he felt numb when confronted with Saudi Arabia’s growing list of judicial executions.
“It seems [the way] things are going, we have witnessed mass executions, have witnessed the death penalty, have witnessed everything, so I guess we’re kind of used it,” said Alaoudh, 36, who is in self-imposed exile in the United States where he is a senior fellow at Georgetown University.
Salman Alaoudh, who has millions of followers on Twitter, had argued that the country’s rulers should be more responsive to the population's desires. In 2017 he was arrested and later charged with 37 counts, including affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Islamist group founded in Egypt, that Saudi Arabia has designated a terrorist organization, according to Amnesty International.
The prosecutor has called for him to be sentenced to death, but his son said his hearings have been postponed with no date currently set.
Prince Mohammed's "grip is already tightened," Alaoudh said, "but he’s tightening it even more."