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World

Rising Saudi executions: 'More than just numbers'

Saudi Arabia has executed more than 150 people already this year, representing a steep rise. Rights groups say the figures - and a raft of judicial shortcomings - should give the West pause for thought.

So far this year, one person has been executed - usually by beheading - every other day in Saudi Arabia.

Since the beginning of January, 151 people have been put to death, according to figures released Monday by rights group Amnesty International. Last year, the number was less than 90 for the entire year.

The increase is steep, but human rights groups say their concerns go far beyond simple numbers.

"It's not just about the numbers per se - although that is alarming," Sevag Kechichian, Amnesty International Researcher on the Middle East and North Africa told DW. "It's about what the figures represent and the reality behind it."

Symbolbild Arabischer Frühling Saudi-Arabien

Al-Nimr was among those involved in Saudi Arabia's own Arab Spring, and was later arrested

"Saudi Arabia has the right to use the death penalty under international law. In and of itself, the 151 number might be horrible, but - at the end of the day - if they are following international guidelines and killing 151 people or 200 a year, there might not be much room for governments to criticize Saudi Arabia."

A pragmatic approach

Instead, rights groups are highlighting areas where Riyadh could be held accountable. Human Rights Watch (HRW) cites Saudi Arabia's use of death sentences for nonlethal offenses - something frowned upon by international law - and what it claims are unfair trials that lack basic legal and judicial safeguards.

"The majority of people executed for nonviolent drug offenses are foreigners - and there are a lot of problems with foreigners and their interaction with the Saudi justice system," Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher with HRW, told DW.

"They often don't have access to lawyers; they often don't understand the trial proceedings and what is happening to them," said Coogle. "They often can be forced into signing confessions without really understanding what is going on around them."

No letter of the law

The lack of a written criminal code also provides enormous scope for ambiguity, says Jordan-based Coogle.

"Something like slander, or even certain details around drug offenses, wouldn't necessarily be something set out in law, so that being prosecuted under principles of Islamic law, as interpreted by individual judges, can create situations where someone might be prosecuted for something that we wouldn't necessarily consider a crime in most other countries."

In addition, rights groups highlight the prosecution of minors for capital offenses. Plans to execute pro-democracy activists Mohammed al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhood - both 17 when they confessed to their alleged crimes - have gained particular notoriety.

Red faces in London

The excesses of Saudi Arabia's justice system have brought the country under greater scrutiny in recent months. Amid mounting controversy, Britain in October abandoned a bid to provide training to Saudi Arabia's penal system, foregoing a contract that was potentially worth £5.9 million ($9 million, 7.9 million euros). However, the British government - which said the decision had been a business one - is still understood to be cooperating with Saudi Arabia on judicial issues.

Despite the bid being shelved, both Amnesty and the human rights group Reprieve have expressed concern over ongoing cooperation between the British and Saudi governments, claiming it is not transparent.

"We have been asking the authorities to reveal what the cooperation is," said Kechichian. "There is a far bigger and broader judicial cooperation - we do not know the details."

Whether the UK is helping with operations, or acting in an advisory role, Amnesty has called for more clarity.

Berlin Demonstration für die Freilassung Raif Badawis

The sentencing of blogger Raif Badawi to be flogged has also garnered much international attention

"Even if it is an advisory capacity, what if that advisory capacity is to improve enhanced investigation techniques?" said Kechichian. What are they advising them on exactly - we have called on them for clarification."

'An obligation on the world stage'

Meanwhile, Britain-based Reprieve has urged the UK government to set down a marker by withdrawing cooperation.

"The West and the Saudis are, of course, extremely intertwined," said Kate Higham, Reprieve's caseworker on the Middle East. "The UK government is opposed to the death penalty and has an obligation to maintain this opposition on the world stage," she said. "For a start, the UK government could cancel all operations to provide support to the Saudi judicial system."

Meanwhile, Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office said on Wednesday that it would continue to raise the issue of human rights with Saudi Arabia, including the use of the death sentence, "at the highest level."

"The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country, especially in cases which do not meet the minimum standards defined under international agreements," an FCO spokeswoman told DW. "Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country because of the situation in the country, particularly on the death penalty," she said.

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