UN, EU, and NGOs Condemn the Execution of 37 Men in Saudi Arabia

24 April 2019 – Yesterday, the Government of Saudi Arabia executed 37 men for alleged terrorist crimes. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior (MoI) confirmed the executions in a tweet and the Saudi Press Agency published a statement by the MoI, along with a list of those executed. Sixteen of the executed men were previously the subjects of communications from United Nations (UN) bodies. In response, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet strongly condemned the executions. The European Union External Action Service (EEAS) similarly raised concerns surrounding the executions. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR), and Reprieve also condemn these executions in the strongest terms.

Among the 37 men executed was Abbas al-Hassan, a father of four from al-Ahsa in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Saudi State Security agents from the General Directorate of Investigations (GDI) arrested Mr. al-Hassan without a warrant in June 2013. Officers transported him to Al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh, where they denied him access to legal counsel and tortured him to produce a confession. The authorities held him without criminal charges for almost three years, when he was brought before a judicial authority and charged with “espionage” and “spreading the Shia faith,” among other charges, none of which were lethal in nature. In December 2016, Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced him to death along with 11 other individuals, in part on the basis of his coerced confession. His sentence was upheld in the SCC Court of Appeal in July 2017 and again in the Saudi Supreme Court in January 2018.  On 1 November 2018, he was transferred by Royal Order to the Presidency of the State Security (PSS), indicating what appeared to be his imminent execution. His case and others marked the first death penalty cases to come before this body. His case was covered by the UN Special Procedures bodies, in communications UA SAU 7/2017, UA 1/2018, and a press release on 15 March 2018.

Another individual executed was Munir al-Adam, a Saudi citizen who was tortured to the extent that he permanently lost hearing in one ear. On 8 April 2012, Saudi security forces detained him at a checkpoint for allegedly attending a pro-democracy protest. The officers took him to the al-Qatif police station, where they subjected him to falaqa, or beating on the soles of the feet, and injured him so badly he could not walk for days. Two weeks later, they transferred him to the GDI in al-Dammam, where officers again subjected Mr. al-Adam to torture, beating him in the ear so hard that he experienced sharp pain and continuously heard a high-pitched whistling sound. Four-and-a-half months after this injury, the GDI took him to a hospital, but denied him the opportunity to have an operation that would have saved his hearing, rendering him permanently deaf in one ear. He was jailed and denied access to legal counsel for three years, until his trial began at the SCC in September 2015. In June 2016, he was sentenced to death for a number of non-lethal charges, including participating in “violent acts” at a protest in 2012 and “sending texts”. His death sentence was upheld on appeal in May 2017, and confirmed by The Supreme Court on 23 July 2017. His case was covered by Special Procedures in communications AL SAU 5/2016 and UA SAU 7/2017, and the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) issued a decision in his case, finding Saudi Arabia in violation of its obligations under the CRPD and calling upon the Kingdom to provide him with effective remedies.

Mujtaba al-Sweikat, Salman Qureish, and Abdulkarim al-Hawaj were also among the 37 men executed, and were all minors at the time of their alleged offenses. All three were tortured by police following their arrests, and were convicted in SCC trials that violated their basic due process rights, including by relying on false confessions extracted through torture. Further, neither Mr al-Sweikat nor Mr al-Hawaj were charged with any lethal offenses. Their executions in spite of their juvenility constitute a grave violation of international human rights law. All three were the subjects of numerous joint communications from UN Special Procedures (SAU 7/2017, 2/2016, 7/2016, 8/2015, 6/2015, and 13/2018), in which the mandates called attention to repeated fair trial violations, including lack of access to timely legal counsel and the denial of materials for lawyers to establish a proper defense.

Many, if not all, of the men executed were tried in the SCC, which has become notorious for fair trial violations, including routinely admitting evidence obtained through torture. Additionally, families of those executed were reportedly not informed that the death sentences would be carried out and some only learned about the executions from news reports. Following yesterday’s events, Saudi Arabia has now executed a total of 105 individuals in 2019 alone, with 37 executions occurring yesterday. By Reprieve’s estimates, the Kingdom is currently on pace to execute a projected 339 individuals by the end of 2019, a record.

In response, High Commissioner Bachelet “strongly condemned” the carrying out of the executions “in spite of repeated appeals by the UN human rights system about the lack of due process and fair trial guarantees, [and] allegations that confessions were obtained through torture.” In particular, she highlighted that “at least three of those killed were minors” at the time of their alleged offense. She further expressed “deep concern for the fate of those who remain on death row, including Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdulla al-Zaher.” The EEAS also issued a statement in response to the executions, with the spokesperson commenting that the execution of 37 people simultaneously “marks the largest number of executions in a single day in Saudi Arabia since 2016 and confirms a negative trend [that stands] in stark contrast with the growing abolitionist movement worldwide.” The spokesperson further stated that the “mass executions raise serious doubts about the respect of the right to fair trail” and noted that “the execution of people who were minor at the time of the alleged charges constitutes a further serious violation.”

“This mass execution is yet another example of the cruelty of the Saudi government – a government that conducts widespread torture, subjects its citizens to unfair trials and appalling conditions of detention, and even executes its own people without notifying their families.” says Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “The fact that so many of these cases were covered by the UN in multiple communications shows that the Saudi authorities have absolutely no regard for rule of law or international institutions like the Human Rights Council. They are no longer fit to serve on that body and should be removed immediately.”

“Saudi Arabia has entered into a bloody era since the ascension of King Salman and his Crown Prince and their absolute control over the country, both internally and externally,” sayes Ali Dubaisi, Director of ESOHR. “The first and most heinous manifestation of this internal control was the mass execution on 2 January 2016. This was followed by numerous crimes, culminating in yesterday’s crime of executing 37 citizens – among them minors, the disabled, and demonstrators. We call for an international investigation to be opened in order to hold accountable all those responsible for the crimes and violations that have occurred, and also calls for a review of Saudi Arabia’s membership in various UN agencies and committees.”

“This is yet another egregious display of brutality by Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman,” says Reprieve Director Maya Foa. “At least three of the people executed today were arrested as teenagers and tortured into false confessions. Many were convicted of non-lethal crimes, such as attending protests. That the Saudi regime believes it has impunity to carry out such patently illegal executions should shock its international partners into action. The US and the UK, in particular, must ensure there are consequences, and that no-one else is unlawfully executed for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

ADHRB, ESOHR, and Reprieve welcome the statements by the UN High Commissioner and EEAS and strongly condemn these executions, and note that the vast majority, if not all of them, were carried out unlawfully due to the flagrant fair trial violations that marred the legal process at every stage. We call on the Saudi government to: provide adequate compensation to the families of the executed men, taking into account their arbitrary detention, torture, unfair trials, and executions; impose a moratorium on the death penalty pending a full and immediate review of death row to identify all death sentences handed down unlawfully, including in the cases of juvenile defendants and all trials that failed to uphold basic fair trial and due process rights; commute all death sentences handed down unlawfully; initiate immediate, transparent investigations into all allegations of torture arising out of capital trials, and commute the death sentences and grant the immediate release of  Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher, who were all convicted in the SCC of crimes that took place when they were juveniles.