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Press Release: The Death Penalty and Illegal Executions in Saudi Arabia

  • News
  • 12 Sep 2019



SIDE EVENT: Thursday, 12th September 2019, 16:30 – 17:30; Room IV, Palais des Nations

Watch the full event 

  • There has been an alarming rise in state executions in Saudi Arabia with over 130 persons executed this year already and at least 24 at imminent risk of execution, including prominent political opponents, clerics, and human rights defenders.
  • A moratorium must immediately be placed on any further deaths sentences being imposed and all executions.
  • An independent international fact finding mission must be established to conduct a full investigation and be allowed access to those on death row in Saudi Arabia to guarantee protection of their human rights.
  • The UN Human Rights Council and States must act collectively to require Saudi Arabia to halt the executions and end its human rights transgressions.
  • States should not participate in the G20 Summit to be held in Saudi Arabia next year unless the executions are ended and human rights standards are upheld.

Today, on 12 September 2019, a side-event to the 42nd Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council was held which addressed the alarming rise in state executions in Saudi Arabia. It highlighted the illegal and arbitrary executions taking place in Saudi Arabia and the human rights abuses surrounding the death penalty for both detainees and their families.

The event was hosted by The Death Penalty Project, and was held at the United Nations Palais des Nations.

The panel included contributions from 1) Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Doughty Street Chambers, London; and 2) Abdullah Al Odah, Senior Fellow at the Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, and part-time Faculty at the Elliott School, at George Washington University and son of death row prisoner in Saudi Arabia, Salman Al Odah.

Speaking at the event, were the following panelists:  1) Baroness Janet Whitaker, UK All Party Parliamentary Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty; 2) Saul Lehrfreund, Co-Executive Director, The Death Penalty Project; 3) Rodney Dixon QC, Temple Garden Chambers, London; and 4) Juliet Wells, Temple Garden Chambers, London.

The panelists drew attention to the abuses and human rights violations committed by the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, as well as the steps that should be taken by States and the UN Human Rights Council to address this growing trend. It was highlighted that 134 people have already been executed in 2019, with six of those killed being children at the time of their arrest, and that at least a further 24 persons are at imminent risk of execution, three of them children. It was emphasised that these abuses have been exacerbated by the systematic torture of detainees and grossly unfair trials culminating in death sentences and the striping of fundamental human rights at each stage of the process.

In particular, the event presented the findings and recommendations set out in the Report by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC titled “A Perverse and Ominous Enterprise; The Death Penalty and Illegal Executions in Saudi Arabia”. Baroness Kennedy addressed the event and welcomed discussions to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to change its laws and practices.

Helena introduced the findings and recommendations of her Report, and stated that:

I have been very concerned about the way in which Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is being presented to the world as being some sort of rogue activity and not part of systemic human rights abuses inside Saudi Arabia. The point of this Report is to highlight the extent to which there has been a dramatic escalation of human rights violations by Saudi Arabia. The cruelty of the system is so great … I really hope you will all take this Report to heart, and ensure that something can be done globally.

The speakers made urgent recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council and to the international community on effective measures to be adopted to achieve justice and accountability. They called for:

  • The immediate establishment of an independent and impartial fact-finding mission and UN investigation to look into violations highlighted during the event and within Baroness Kennedy’s report, to ensure the safety and welfare of those on death row;
  • Urgent action by UN Special Rapporteurs under the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the violations highlighted, and urgently to issue communications demanding that Saudi Arabia remedy all past violations and take genuine steps to prevent all prospective violations;
  • Diplomatic and political pressure by the international community including through objecting to Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the G20 Summit next year unless the executions are halted and human rights standards upheld;
  • A moratorium to be imposed on all uses of the death penalty in order to save the lives of the large number of people at immediate risk of arbitrary execution;
  • Saudi Arabia to publish comprehensive, reliable and up to date information about the number and identities of persons on death row, together with an explanation of the specific conduct for which the death penalty was imposed; and
  • Immediate release of the remains of those who have been executed to their families.

Saul Lehrfreund, co-Executive Director of the Death Penalty Project, UK, said:

“Over 75% of the world’s nations now recognise the death penalty to be an inhuman and degrading punishment that is incompatible with the right to life. Even many countries that grimly hang on to the death penalty have come to accept that the question is no longer whether they should abolish capital punishment, but rather how and when. Saudi Arabia shows no signs of such progress and continues to use the death penalty as a tool of repression for non-violent and political activities, with children among the many executed. This systematic and flagrant disregard for basic human rights and respect for the rule of law must be addressed by the international community.” 

Baroness Janet Whitaker, of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty, said:

“This is a really important report which all Parliaments in democratic countries ought to act on to get its recommendations implemented.  The UK has a declared policy in favour of human rights wherever it is and in whatever circumstances.  I am sure, therefore, that the UK Government will exert what pressure they can to encourage the upholding of human rights in Saudi Arabia.”

 Abdullah Al Odah, Senior Fellow at the Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, and part-time Faculty at the Elliott School, at George Washington University, and son of death row prisoner in Saudi Arabia, Salman Al Odah, said:

“The Saudi Government is executing pressure and intimidating and imprisoning human rights defenders, activists, human rights defenders, and public figures in Saudi Arabia.  We have been witnessing the way the Saudi Government acted to imprison and arrest people by using the death penalty in particular to punish those who peacefully sought to ask for liberties and basic freedoms in Saudi Arabia; it’s just preposterous and should be held accountable.”

Rodney Dixon QC from Temple Garden Chambers in London said: “Saudi Arabia has consistently breached its obligations under international human rights law, and ignored all protestations from its own citizens and the international community.  The G20 Summit, due to be held in Saudi Arabia next year, will be a critical juncture.  The leading nations of the world should not normalise the arbitrary and politicised use of the death penalty by the Saudi authorities through turning a blind eye and participating in this important world summit.  The international rule of law needs to be policed through effective international diplomacy and collective action.”

Senator Marco Perduca, who is a former Senator in Italy and Board Member of No Peace Without Justice, said:

“Baroness Kennedy’s Report further highlights the already serious inhuman and degrading treatment that hundreds of people are subjected to in Saudi Arabia, in the conveyor belt of horrors that leads to their judicially-sanctioned killing or extra-judicial killing. For European countries and others it is no longer sufficient to merely abolish the death penalty at home, or simply vote in favour on the Universal Moratorium at the UN – as they do periodically at the UN General Assembly. Bilateral and multilateral relations cannot ignore the priority of unconditional respect of fundamental rights regardless of national or religious laws applied by Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia has not ratified any comprehensive international instrument on human rights, and for decades has been directly or indirectly involved in the systematic violation of liberties of Saudi citizens and other individuals in the Gulf and the broader Middle East, this does not excuse our own Governments inaction and tacit complicity.”

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