- Human Rights Watch have found that Saudi executed 48 people since the start of 2018
- Saudi persists in using capital punishment for non-violent drug crimes
- At the same time, Saudi is looking to re-work its global image to be more 'modernized'
- Saudi royals still appear to be largely immune from the criminal justice system
By Ty Joplin
Waleed al-Saqqar stood before a Saudi judge, facing the death penalty.
In 2014, Waleed al-Saqqar, a Jordanian man, was caught smuggling thousands of captagon pills from Jordan into Saudi Arabia. Preventing from explaining the circumstances that led to him smuggling pills, and without a lawyer to speak on his behalf, al-Saqqar was sentenced to death.
His total trial reportedly only lasted five minutes. In the eyes of the Saudi criminal justide system, that was enough time for the Saudi judge to evaluate the evidence presented and make a life-ending decision.
Al-Saqqar’s case is not unique. In fact, his appears to be the norm for drug crimes in Saudi Arabia. The notoriously conservative country has, according to Human Rights Watch, executed 48 people since the start of 2018. Many of those killed have been sentenced for non-violent drug crimes and often seem unable to acquire legal representation during the trial.
In fact, Saudi has executed over 600 people since 2014, with more than a third of those executions being for drug-related offenses.
While Saudi’s de facto leader, Mohammad bin Salman, tours the world trying to re-brand the country as a progressive and modern place, it keeps killing people for drug crimes.
Saudi has a History of Killing Drug Offenders
Saudi Arabia's notorious "Chop Chop" square, where executions often take place. (Shutterstock)
Saudi’s criminal justice system has, since a 1987 religious ruling, mandated the death penalty for certain drug-related crimes.
The Royal Decree no. 39 of 2005 further gave judges more discretionary power to hand down death sentences to a wide range of drug trafficking crimes, defined as “selling, donation, distribution, delivery, reception or transportation,” of drugs.
Saudi judges have sentenced hundreds to die for crimes relating to drug possession and trafficking.
Human rights researchers and activists say Saudi’s extensive use of capital punishment for non-violent crimes violates international law, specifically the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was acceded by the United Nations General Assembly. The ICCPR only permits the death penalty for the "most serious crimes.”
A Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch pointed out in an interview that although Saudi is not a signatory to the ICCPR, the laws therein have been so universally accepted that they have become customary international law.
Moreover, the ICCPR seeks to strengthen due process within criminal and civil justice courts—a basic human rights and practice has not shown much dedication towards. Saudi executes an average of 80-200 people annually, making it one of the most prodigious users of capital punishment in the world, third only to China and Iran.
In an interview with Al Bawaba, the researcher said that although Saudi has campaigned to be more outward looking and modern, Mohammad bin Salman has not really touched the criminal justice system.
These deaths are likely something bin Salman is likely “embarrassed by” and may have a plan to change, but no such plan has been publicly unveiled.
Saudi Royals, Immune from the Criminal Justice System
Saudi’s Ritz Carlton functioned as a detainment center for bin Salman’s purge (Ritz Carlton)
Saudi’s criminal justice system appears two-tiered, with members of the royal family either entirely immune or the subject of only light punishment, with everyone else receiving the death penalty or stiff jail sentences.
Saudi’s royal family are infamous for hosting lavish parties and maintaining illicit drug habits.
In 2010, Wikileaks released cables of U.S. diplomats discussing parties hosted by Saudi royals.
"Alcohol, though strictly prohibited by Saudi law and custom, was plentiful at the party's well-stocked bar. The hired Filipino bartenders served a cocktail punch using sadiqi, a locally-made moonshine," the dispatch read. "It was also learned through word-of-mouth that a number of the guests were in fact 'working girls', not uncommon for such parties."
The diplomatic cable added that cocaine and hashish is common in Saudi royal circles.
One Saudi prince, Abdel Mohsen bin Walid bin Abdulaziz, was caught smuggling tens of thousands pills into Saudi via Beirut. Unlike al-Saqqar, the Jordanian who received the death penalty after a five-minute trial, bin Abdulaziz has been seen partying since he was caught.
Another prince, Majed Abdulaziz al-Saud, had been renting a home in Beverly Hills, California and allegedly abusing female house workers. Court documents detailed testimonies from workers who were subject to emotional and sexual abuse.
At one point, the prince yelled “I am a prince, and I do what I want! You are nobody!” to the women and threatened to kill them. Felony charges against the prince were dropped due to “insufficient evidence.”
When asked why laws simply don’t seem to apply to the Saudi royal family, which has an estimated 15,000 members, the researcher for Human Rights Watch, was blunt. “Because they have undue influence and can get out of these things.”
Mohammad bin Salman (AFP/FILE)
Mohammad bin Salman, whose predecessor was reportedly removed from power thanks in part to a burgeoning addiction to painkillers, launched an ‘anti-corruption’ purge to show that even royals were not above the law.
This ‘purge,’ turned out to be a measure by bin Salman to round up, detain and even torture members of Saudi’s elite who are critical of his rule.
In November 2017, hundreds of princes and Saudi millionaires were detained in a Ritz-Carlton, and had much of their wealth stripped from them. Over $100 billion was reported to have been confiscated from them, while stories of coercion and even torture emerged.
Major General Ali al-Qahtani, who was an aide to a senior prince that was critical of bin Salman, was found dead with a broken neck while in custody.
Bin Salman insisted that the purge was to re-invest embezzled money into the Saudi economy, but The Intercept revealed secret communications between bin Salman and Jared Kushner, a close advisor and son-in-law to U.S. President Donald Trump which showed Kushner potentially giving away names of Saudi dissidents to bin Salman.
These people were later detained by bin Salman in the purge.
While Mohammad bin Salman has tried to revamp the image of Saudi to look more modern, he has appeared to rework lines of accountability to flow through him. In his permissive attitude towards lavishness, bin Salman is sending a message that as long as you are loyal to him, you are still above the law.
Meanwhile, non-royals and nationals of other countries will continue to be killed for drug offenses in hasty court proceedings, often without defense attorneys present.