Saudi Arabia, for years one of the world’s most prolific executioners, dramatically reduced the number of people put to death last year, following changes halting executions for non-violent drug-related crimes, according to the government’s tally and independent observers.
The Saudi Human Rights Commission yesterday said it documented 27 executions last year. That compares with an all-time high of 184 executions the year before, as documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The change represents an 85 percent reduction in the number of people put to death last year, compared with 2019.
“The sharp decrease was brought about in part by a moratorium on death penalties for drug-related offenses,” the commission said.
When asked by The Associated Press, the commission said the new law ordering a stop to such executions came into effect sometime last year. The new directive for judges does not appear to have been published publicly and it was not immediately clear whether the law was changed by royal decree, as is typically the case.
The AP previously reported that Riyadh last year also ordered an end to the death penalty for crimes committed by minors and ordered judges to end the controversial practice of public flogging, replacing it with jail time, fines or community service.
The force behind these changes is 34-year-old Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has the backing of his father, King Salman.
In an effort to modernize the country, attract foreign investment and revamp the economy, the prince has spearheaded a range of reforms curtailing the power of ultraconservative Wahhabis, who adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam that many Saudi Arabians still practice.
For years, the kingdom’s high rate of executions was in large part due to the number of people executed for non-lethal offenses, which judges had wide discretion to rule on, particularly for drug-related crimes.
Amnesty International ranked Saudi Arabia third in the world for the highest number of executions in 2019, after China, where the number of executions is believed to be in the thousands, and Iran.
Among those put to death that year by Saudi Arabia were 32 minority Shiites convicted on terrorism charges related to their participation in anti-government protests and clashes with police.
While some crimes, such as premeditated murder, can carry fixed punishments under the Saudi interpretation of Islamic law, drug-related offenses are considered “ta’zir,” meaning neither the crime nor the punishment is defined in Islam. Discretionary judgements for ta’zir crimes led to arbitrary rulings with contentious outcomes.
Riyadh has long been criticized by rights groups for applying the death sentence for non-violent crimes related to drug trafficking.
Many of those executed for such crimes were often poor Yemenis or low-level drug smugglers of South Asian descent, with the latter having little to no knowledge of Arabic and unable to understand or read the charges against them in court.
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