Methods of Execution
There are reports that at least one execution in January 2009 and two in 2008 may have taken place by shooting. Over the past few years, reported executions have been almost exclusively by beheading, despite the prevalence of media discussion of the possibility of death by stoning. There are reports that Saudis have exposed the body (with head sewn back on) of the condemned to public indignity, including crucifixion, after execution for the crime of highway robbery resulting in death.
Number of Individuals On Death Row
Annual Number of Reported Executions in Last Decade
Executions in 2020 to date
Executions in 2019
At least 184.
According to Reprieve , Saudi Arabia executed 184 people in 2019, 90 of whom were foreign nationals and six of unknown nationality. Saudi Arabia executed at least three foreign national women from Nigeria, the Philippines, and Pakistan. In September, Saudi Arabia executed a person from Pakistan, and two people from Bahrain for drug-related charges. Saudi Arabia further executed two young Jordanians in October.
In July, a report by Baroness Helena Kennedy stated that at least 55 out of 134 people were executed for drug-related offences.
In April, Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 37 people convicted of terrorism-related offenses after conducting trials that did not meet fair trial standards. At least 33 of the 37 people executed belonged to the country’s Shi’a minority, and at least three were under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged offense.
Executions in 2018
Does the country’s constitution mention capital punishment?
Saudi Arabia's Basic Law incorporates the Quran and Sunna as the nation’s constitution and provides that “[the] State protects human rights in accordance with the Islamic Shari’a.” Describing what this means is somewhat complicated by the advent of Wahhabism and then Salafism, which diminish the importance of the juristic schools in determining law. This is problematic when describing the laws of a country like Saudi Arabia, hailed as the “accredited centre of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence,” but actually the flashpoint of Wahhabism and Salafism. However, some principles of law may be common. Shari’a law historically recognizes certain principles that can be thought of as fundamental constitutional principles of law. Those that relate to the death penalty include legality and non-retroactivity, the presumption of innocence and the requirements of a fair trial, habeus corpus and judicial review. The Arab Charter on Human Rights (which Saudi Arabia has ratified) is consistent with Shari’a principles, and recognizes the right to a fair trial and not to be arbitrarily deprived of life, among other rights.
Offenses Punishable by Death
Aggravated murder may be punishable by death as both hadd and qisas. This offense may include (but not be limited to) offenses such as murder during robbery or murder involving seclusion, treachery, or other methods rendering the victim helpless (or that have the effect of spreading terror)—in this case, the murder may be punished by death as hadd. This may not be the Hanbali position, but one Al-Adl (a journal published by the Saudi Ministry of Justice) article adopted this position.
Murder is punishable by death as qisas. “Islamic law presumes that any sane person who intentionally kills a person with a weapon, is a sinner deserving perdition according to the Qur’an and that the murderer is subject to retaliation.” Murder is punishable by death as qisas (retaliation) or diya (compensation instead of execution), but there is some disagreement over which circumstances allow qisas. According to the Hanbali schools of Sunni Islam, the offender is subject to death as qisas if “the killer intended to kill and employed some means likely to have that result.” It is also possible that courts might apply the principle that intentional killing or intentional infliction of serious and permanent bodily harm allows application of the talion principle and therefore the death penalty if the offense results in death.
Other Offenses Resulting in Death.
Killing without intent may be punishable by death as hadd, but probably not as qisas. This offense may include (but might not be limited to) robbery resulting in death. For most schools, including the Hanbali school, all participants in a group robbery resulting in death were punishable by death, regardless of cause or intent.
Terrorism-Related Offenses Resulting in Death.
By Fatwa issued on August 30, 1988, acts of terrorism (as “corruption on earth”) carry the mandatory death penalty; the ambit of this Fatwa is unclear. The description of this offense as “corruption on earth” suggests that the penalty may be hadd. “Contemporary scholars of Islamic Shari’a adopt the view that terrorism is included under the crime of hiraba, or waging war against God and his Apostle and making or spreading corruption on earth,” although analysis on this matter has not been comprehensive, and the position seems more developed by the Maliki school of Sunni Islam and the Shi’a schools than by the Hanbali school.
Terrorism-Related Offenses Not Resulting in Death.
By Fatwa issued on August 30, 1988, acts of terrorism (as “corruption on earth”) may carry the mandatory death penalty; the Fatwa does not specify that such acts must result in death, and its ambit is unclear. The description of this offense as “corruption on earth” could suggest that the penalty is hadd, although it would not be traditional in the Hanbali school (or most schools of Sunni Islam) to apply the death penalty as hadd for non-lethal corruption on earth.
Rape Not Resulting in Death.
Rape is punishable by death as hadd or ta’zir, depending on the circumstances. For a fuller explanation, see our comments—because the evidentiary requirements for this hadd are demanding, it is more likely that the death penalty is applied as ta’zir for aggravated rape. For instance, rape is reported to result in the death penalty, and further investigation shows that the offender was a serial rapist who secluded and robbed his victims.
Robbery Not Resulting in Death.
Robbery is punishable by death as hadd, but in most schools (including the Hanbali school) only when resulting in death. Otherwise, the death penalty might apply as ta’zir under circumstances such as recidivism or where the offense is aggravated. For instance, a group armed robbery in which a woman was bound, gagged and held at knifepoint in her home and an offense involving rape and armed robbery led to executions, reportedly, at least in part on the grounds of armed robbery. For a fuller explanation, see our comments.
Drug Trafficking Not Resulting in Death.
The death penalty may be imposed for drug smuggling and for importing, exporting, manufacturing, extracting or growing drugs and narcotics with the intention of trafficking. Further, complicity in the commission of any of these offenses carries the death penalty. Capital punishment may also be imposed for the second offense of circulating drugs “by selling, offering, distributing, delivering, receiving or transporting.”
An article published in Al-Adl indicates that not all Saudi appellate courts agree on the correct application of narcotics laws to those who possess drugs—some arguing that those who possess requisite amounts should be presumed to be engaged in trafficking, others arguing that possession should be considered trafficking based on other factors. (A finding of trafficking could trigger the death penalty under Royal Decree no. 39 of 2005).
Consensual Sexual Relations Between Adults of Same Sex.
In Saudi Arabia, individuals can be and have been sentenced to death and executed for apostasy. Although there is no contemporary consensus on the treatment of apostasy, it is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. The death penalty for apostasy may be ta’zir, as the Hanbali school does not consider apostasy to carry a hadd punishment, while still allowing for the death penalty. Traditionally, apostates are afforded a period of time to turn back to Islam, but the death penalty still applies under this rule (in jurisdictions that provide for it)—an individual who persists in his opinion will be executed, thus, there is ultimately no freedom to publically adhere to a divergent opinion without being executed.
Judges reportedly treat gay and lesbian sexual relations as zina, applying the penalty of death or lashing according to the circumstances. The schools of Sunni Islam take different positions on the treatment of homosexual and lesbian acts. The Hanbali school treated male sodomy as carrying the penalty of death as hadd, regardless of the marital status of the offender, while lesbianism was punished (under all schools) as a ta’zir offense. In this regard, Saudi jurisprudence is heterodox in that it treats lesbianism as punishable as hadd. The evidentiary requirements for inflicting a hadd penalty are demanding—for further explanation, see our comments.
We did not find any codified law on the offense of treason. The conditions under which treason was historically punished by death have been limited. Some scholars have confused the hadd penalty of death for rebellion—which was seen as treason—as a judicially enforceable penalty, but a discussion of the offense of rebellion shows that the hadd penalty, as conceived of by most schools, simply included the right of the ruler to kill when necessary in subduing a rebellion, which might include the right to pursue and dispatch fleeing rebels. Judicially inflicting the death penalty as hadd would require a finding that the rebel was actually spreading “corruption on earth” due to his actions (such as spreading terror) or because the rebel did not espouse a reasonably legitimate cause. This proof is not as simple as demonstrating that the rebel opposed a just authority—and in fact, for most schools (historically) the finding did not turn on whether the authority was just or the rebel was correct. In some cases, groups with heterodox beliefs may have been considered rebels, or, instead, corrupt on earth (these are not the same), although whether this carried a judicial penalty is unclear from the sources we referenced. The Hanbali school of law does not treat rebellion as carrying religiously stipulated penalties, so it may be that the death penalty for treason in Saudi Arabia is awarded as hadd when the offenders are guilty of spreading corruption on earth or as ta’zir if they are simply guilty of rebellion. Amnesty International suggests that the category of “corrupt on earth” is used as a justification for ta’zir punishment of political crimes, and does not differentiate between rebellion and corruption on earth; we are not sure whether this is due to a lack of clarity about the law or to judicial practices. It might be likely that the death penalty as hadd for treasonable offenses would usually be construed as a penalty for terrorism.
Other Offenses Not Resulting in Death.
Offenses such as treason and disloyalty are punished severely; other offenses would seem not to carry the death penalty (except when falling under the jurisdiction of a Sharia court, which might apply the death penalty). We did not find any recent statutory law or description of the punishment of offenses by military personnel.
Does the country have a mandatory death penalty?
Yes. Saudi jurists apply the mandatory death penalty for a wide range of offenses, although traditionally each mandatory death penalty is different in its application.
Hudud offenses are considered claims of God, and are described in the Quran, although the penalty for a hadd (singular) offense is usually found in the Sunna. These penalties can “neither be reduced nor augmented.” A hadd penalty should not be awarded unless stringent evidentiary requirements are met, and scholars point out rules suggesting that courts should avoid applying hudud penalties whenever possible. To some extent, this can limit the mandatory nature of the death penalty for hadd offenses, by making it extremely difficult to apply them. It might be possible for Saudi courts to achieve a discretionary, non-arbitrary standard by limiting application of hudud penalties to cases that are particularly egregious and unmitigated by any form of doubt, but we have seen no evidence that Saudi courts apply hadd penalties in a narrow, non-arbitrary fashion—so the death penalty as hadd can be considered mandatory in Saudi Arabia.
Qisas offenses are considered offenses against the individual’s body (such as murder or harm), and some presumptive penalties (and alternatives) are described in the Quran and developed in the Sunna and schools of Islam. These penalties are mandatory in that the victim’s kin (in the case of murder) can freely forgive the murderer or demand compensation in lieu of execution, but otherwise the death penalty is awarded as qisas, ultimately rendering the sentencing decision a non-judicial decision. Under the Hanbali school, traditionally if any heir did not agree to forgive the offender, blood money was payable, and a similar rule may apply in Saudi Arabia. In any case a review of “intentional” murders for which the offenders face the death penalty unless they reach a private settlement with the family will illustrate the degree to which this system fails to incorporate a discretionary aspect that considers relevant factors such as the offender’s culpability and the nature of the offense. At least one scholar has described how Shari’a courts might use discretionary sentencing while still allowing for the qisas-diya system for murder, but there is currently no argument that the Saudi system incorporates a non-arbitrary discretionary aspect to sentencing for murder. The death penalty as qisas is mandatory in Saudi Arabia.
Some penalties might be considered hadd or ta’zir, but in any case as codified the mandatory death penalty applies.
Finally, ta’zir penalties are discretionary (unless they are, by a statute, defined as mandatory), but it is relevant whether courts apply the death penalty in a mandatory fashion. For instance, the death penalty for apostasy is ta’zir under the Hanbali school, but the traditional Hanbali position was still that the death penalty should be applied. Commentary in Al-Adl, a journal published by the Saudi Ministry of Justice, indicates some disagreement over whether the death penalty for some recidivist offenses is hadd or ta’zir. While we do not enumerate these as carrying the mandatory death penalty, further research could show that the death penalty is applied in a mandatory fashion for these or other offenses. Arbitrariness or unequal treatment of different defendants due to different standards of judging during the trial might be limited by the requirement of unanimity among 5-judge appeals panels charged with confirming the death penalty for discretionary sentences —presumably, this requirement could conform sentencing to discretionary standards, but it might not if judges agreed that a ta’zir offense should carry the death penalty regardless of individual circumstances.
Which offenses carry a mandatory death sentence, if any?
Consensual Sexual Relations Between Adults of Same Sex.
Zina carries the death penalty as hadd for married persons (and lashing for unmarried persons), under demanding evidentiary showings. Under traditional rules (discussed in the preceding questions and their Comments), execution of a death sentence for adultery might be unlikely."
Categories of Offenders Excluded From the Death Penalty
The execution of pregnant women is anathema to the rights of the child set forth in the Quran and Sunna, although the woman may be sentenced to death. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has ratified the Revised Arab Charter on Human Rights, which prohibits execution of pregnant women as contrary to the interests of the infant.
Women With Small Children.
The execution of nursing women is anathema to the rights of the child (until the child is two years old) set forth in the Quran and Sunna, although the woman may be sentenced to death. Saudi Arabia has ratified the Revised Arab Charter on Human Rights (2004), which prohibits execution of nursing women as contrary to the interests of the infant for at least two years after giving birth.
Saudi courts appear to recognize that under limited circumstances, a person who does not have mental awareness of the consequences of his acts is not criminally responsible beyond payment of compensation. Those who are aware of the bad consequences of their acts but unable to control their behavior due to insanity might not be excepted from hadd (mandatory) or qisas punishments but can be excepted from tazir (discretionary) punishments. Those who are insane but could be argued to have the ability to control their actions might not be excused from punishment. The extent to which an individual’s judgment is compromised by his mental illness is a question that is left to the courts to determine, and not all individuals with mental illnesses are excluded from the death penalty. One judge, for example, recently wrote about his decision to sentence a man with a schizophrenic disorder to death as qisas for murder (focusing somewhat on the interaction of self-medication attempts with the individual’s illness).
Shari’a principles traditionally exclude youthful offenders from execution, and are consistent with excluding from execution those under the age of 18 at the time of their offenses. It is presently unclear whether Saudi law prohibits the execution of juvenile offenders. Although Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it entered “reservations with respect to all such articles as are in conflict with the provisions of Islamic law. The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia has ratified, prohibits the execution of juvenile offenders unless otherwise provided by law. Saudi Arabia is also a party to the Covenant on the Rights of the Child in Islam; however, this covenant might not prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders.
In 2006, the Committee on the Rights of the Child in its Concluding Observations expressed concern over Saudi Arabia’s practice of allowing a judge discretion to order the execution of individuals for crimes committed while under the age of 18 upon his determination that the offender had reached majority before that age. In 2009, the Human Rights Council recommended that Saudi Arabia amend its Criminal Procedure Code to explicitly exclude those under 18 at the time of committing an offense from the death penalty; Saudi Arabia accepted the recommendation “in accordance with its commitments undertaken under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” The Saudi government’s acceptance of the recommendation of the Human Rights Council came a month after the government beheaded two men for crimes committed as juveniles. One maid on death row during our research was 17 (although she had falsified her passport to claim otherwise in order to enter the country to work) at the time she committed what appears to be an accidental killing.
Saudi courts appear to recognize a person who does not have mental awareness of the consequences of his acts is not criminally responsible beyond payment of compensation. The execution of individuals who cannot satisfy the requirement of intent (or voluntariness in contributing testimonial evidence) is traditionally prohibited under Shari’a rules, and this has—historically—affected the competency of intellectually disabled individuals to face capital charges and whether a court may find premeditation and understanding sufficient for criminal liability. We do not know the application of this principle in Saudi Arabia.
This has also historically affected the competency of insane individuals to stand trial for capital charges and whether a court may find premeditation and understanding sufficient for criminal liability. It has also affected whether an individual who becomes insane after a verdict can be executed, especially if the offender’s testimony was used against him. Intoxication, while (if voluntary) not necessarily preventing criminal liability, may exclude the application of hudud and qisas penalties (thus likely excluding the death penalty). Our review of a Saudi judge’s decision-making in sentencing a schizophrenic individual to death did not suggest that these rules are strictly adhered to.
Offenses For Which Individuals Have Been Executed In the Last Decade
Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s top executioners. In 2018, out of 149 executions 85 were for murder, 60 for drug-related crimes, one for armed robbery, one for kidnapping and torture, one for rape, and one for terrorism. In 2017, out of 146 executions, 78 were for murder, 59 for drug-related crimes, four for terrorism-related offenses, two for kidnapping and torture, two for rape, and one for witchcraft, sorcery, and adultery.
Have there been any significant published cases concerning the death penalty in national courts?
There may be cases and certainly are judge-driven academic discussions about cases that are at least somewhat elucidating application of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. These discussions establish that there is some disagreement as to whether the death penalty is religiously stipulated (hadd) or discretionary (tazir) for apostasy, recidivist alcohol or cannabis use and theft, and rebellion or corruption on earth (although these are most likely treated as tazir). They also suggest that anti-drug law may be applied expansively, protections for the intellectually disabled or mentally ill are probably limited.
Does the country’s constitution make reference to international law?
The Basic Law provides that “the implementation of [the Basic Law] will not prejudice the treaties and agreements signed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with international bodies and organizations.” This suggests that international human rights agreements entered by Saudi Arabia should have an impact on the application of domestic law. Saudi Arabia has ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights as revised in 2004.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
Date of Signature
Date of Accession
First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, Recognizing Jurisdiction of the Human Rights Committee
Date of Signature
Date of Accession
American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR)
American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR)
Death Penalty Protocol to the ACHR
DPP to ACHR Party?
DPP to ACHR Signed?
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR)
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR)
Protocol to the ACHPR on the Rights of Women in Africa
ACHPR Women Party?
ACHPR Women Signed?
African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child
ACHPR Child Party?
ACHPR Child Signed?
Arab Charter on Human Rights
Comments and Decisions of the U.N. Human Rights System
Because Saudi Arabia is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Committee does not issue decisions on petitions by individuals or Concluding Observations pursuant to periodic review of human rights.
Comments and Decisions of Regional Human Rights Systems
The Members of the Human Rights Council recommended that Saudi Arabia eliminate the juvenile death penalty, commute the death sentences of those convicted for offenses committed while under the age of 18, restrict the application of the death penalty to the most serious offenses, and institute protections to safeguard the rights of defendants, including safeguards available at international law. The Saudi government accepted the Members’ recommendations that it address these concerns.
Availability of Lawyers for Indigent Defendants at Trial
According to the Law on Criminal Procedure, defendants have a right to an attorney “or representative” during investigation and the trial stage. The governmental Human Rights Commission states that attorneys are provided at the public expense. In 2008, Amnesty International observed that trials are secretive and generally carried out without lawyers.
Availability of Lawyers for Indigent Defendants on Appeal
According to the Law on Criminal Procedure, defendants have a right to an attorney during the “trial stages,” it is unclear whether this is interpreted to limit the government’s practice of providing attorneys at public expense at the various stages of appeal. In 2008, Amnesty International observed that the appeals process is generally carried out with little input from the defendant’s perspective.
Quality of Legal Representation
In 2010, the Human Rights Council noted several cases in which the Saudi government incarcerated human rights defenders for their activities. In one case, the courts sanctioned an attorney and punished his client because the court disapproved of publicity surrounding the defendant’s appeal. In 2008, Amnesty International observed that trials are secretive and generally carried out without lawyers. Access to a lawyer may also be undermined by the government’s failure to provide adequate interpretation services for foreign defendants.
Defendants facing capital charges are tried before a 3-judge panel known as the General Court. Appeals can be filed up to 30 days after deposit of judgment. After 45 days, with or without the defendant’s filed appeal, the Appellate Court must engage in automatic review of any sentence of death, which cannot be confirmed except by unanimous decision if the sentence is discretionary. Confirmation by the Appellate Court is not final—the Supreme Court must still confirm the sentence. In the case of acquittal at trial, the prosecutor or the individual asserting a private criminal claim (for qisas) has 30 days to file an appeal. While the parties might not always be permitted to appear before the Appellate Court, the Court may review of questions of law and fact, including newly submitted facts, and orders retrial if it finds for the petitioner (whether for a defendant or prosecutor or person exercising a private right of qisas). Our research indicates that prosecutors and those claiming a private right of qisas are not able to appeal a decision of the Appellate Court.
Traditionally, the ruler’s ability to pardon hudud penalties is limited, although penalties can be suspended in some circumstances. Qisas penalties are usually pardoned by the victim’s family, not the ruler. Ta’zir penalties may be pardoned by the public authority. That is the background for the Saudi laws on this matter.
Under Article 220 of the Law on Criminal Procedure, no sentence of death can be executed except pursuant to a Royal Order “issued by the King or his authorized representative.” Under Articles 22 and 23, “public criminal action” (hadd or tazir penalties) lapses upon pardon by the King (or in some cases upon repentance, where pardon would be judicially granted), but “private criminal action” (qisas) carries no hope of government-issued pardon—only the victim’s heirs may pardon the offender, usually after a payment of diyat (blood money). Some public offenses are not pardonable by the King; this implies that while under Article 220 the King need not issue a decree executing a sentence of death as hadd, under Article 22 the King may not be permitted to actually pardon an individual who is under sentence of death awarded as hadd. Pardon may includes the reduction of penalties and is not always a full pardon.
Availability of jury trials
No. Individuals who face the possibility of a death sentence are tried before a 3-judge panel known as a General Court. For those facing death for tazir crimes, the court must either sentence the offender to death unanimously or, in the case of non-unanimity, obtain a 3-of-5 majority upon the addition of two judges to the court for sentencing purposes. The Criminal Procedure Code is silent as to whether a sentence of death may be imposed for hadd or qisas crimes based merely upon a majority vote.
Systemic Challenges in the Criminal Justice System
It should be noted that the approach to sentencing for tazir crimes is fundamentally unfair to the defendant. If a defendant stands trial and successfully convinces one of three judges that he should not be executed for a tazir offense, Saudi law requires that two additional judges be appointed to consider the matter along with the original 3-judge panel. A simple majority of the new panel of five judges may sentence the defendant to death. This is somewhat ameliorated by the requirement of unanimity on appeal.
Individuals who appeal their sentences may be submitted to harsher sentences since judges on appeal have extensive discretion to modify the sentence imposed. Amnesty International reports that trial procedures are secretive and that opportunity to guarantee a fair trial by engaging in appellate review is extremely limited. Human Rights Watch reports extensive abuse of pre-trial detainees and judicial participation in forcing illegitimate confessions in some capital cases; communications of the Human Rights Council support such contentions and a number of human rights organizations not controlled by the Saudi government report systematic abuse by authorities, including torture for the purpose of extracting confessions or simply for punishment. Human Rights Watch reports some positive rulings (in 2009) regarding protecting the defendant’s right to representation, which could help reduce the state’s ability to deny defendants’ other rights with impunity—although courts may sanction zealous advocates.
Finally, women have been severely penalized when they are victimized by men—sometimes on the grounds that the woman has stepped out of the limits of the severely restrictive guardianship system, and sometimes because judges simply do not apply Shari’a rules protecting a woman who alleges she has been raped. Women who are raped can—if they make the state authority aware by complaining, or if they become pregnant—be prosecuted for the capital offense of zina, and courts have not complied with principles that would prevent the application of the hadd in cases where rape is alleged.
Where Are Death-Sentenced Prisoners incarcerated?
Description of Prison Conditions
The U.S. Department of State reports that in general, prison conditions in Saudi Arabia are below international standards, with particularly poor conditions prevalent in women’s prisons. Overcrowding is a problem, with domestic human rights organizations reporting overcrowding so severe as to require prisoners to sleep in shifts. Inmates have died of tuberculosis and suffered from preventable infectious diseases. Some educational and vocational training is provided, although we do not know whether it is provided to those sentenced to death. Terror convicts are held separately from all other convicts to prevent the spread of extremist ideology. Women, men and juveniles are held separately. The conditions for women or foreigners under sentence of death may be significantly better—for instance, one female domestic worker under sentence of death has been held in a converted private home, where she has reportedly been well-treated.
Other individuals held in Saudi prisons may either be tortured or exposed to an environment in which torture is common.
Foreign Nationals Known to Be on Death Row
Yes, although exact numbers are difficult to confirm. It is estimated that dozens of individuals are on death row for drug-related offenses. A large proportion of these people are foreign nationals from Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
Out of the 149 people who were executed in 2018, 75 were foreign nationals, including 33 Pakistani nationals. In the first four months of 2019, Saudi Arabia executed 104 people including 44 foreign nationals.
(This question was last updated on April 25, 2019.).
What are the nationalities of the known foreign nationals on death row?
In 2018, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed its concern over the large numbers of foreign nationals among those sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia.
In 2017–2018, Saudi Arabia executed people from the following countries: Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Palestine, Pakistan, Philippines, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen.
It is likely that there are large numbers of people from Pakistan and Yemen on death row in Saudi Arabia, as 50 people from Pakistan were executed in 2017–2018, and 20 people from Yemen were executed in 2017.
Poor migrant workers are more at risk of being sentenced to death because they often lack the language skills and other knowledge that may be necessary for their defense, and the government does not always provide a free interpreter to those charged with a criminal offense as they are obligated to do under international law. Saudi Arabia often denies foreign nationals access to consular assistance. Migrant workers also are particularly vulnerable because they lack the relationships and resources that would allow them to obtain a pardon, which, through the practice of diya, is often granted only to those who are able to influence the victim’s family through kinship or friendship as well as large sums of money.
(This question was last updated on April 25, 2019.).
Women Known to Be on Death Row
Women are frequently executed in Saudi Arabia; however, we were unable to confirm the number of women on death row as of April 2019. The last known execution of a woman took place in January 2019, when Saudi Arabia executed a Filipina domestic worker for murder. The details of her case have not been disclosed at the time of research.
At least two women were executed in 2018: Tuti Tursilawati, an Indonesian domestic worker, and a female Ethiopian national. Saudi Arabia convicted Tuti Tursilawati of killing her employer and executed her without notifying the Indonesian authorities. Tuti said she had been defending herself from being raped by her boss.
(This question was last updated on April 25, 2019.).
Juvenile Offenders Known to Be on Death Row
At the end of 2018, at least four individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time of the offense were on death row. Although Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which clearly prohibits the imposition of capital punishment on those under 18, it entered “reservations with respect to all such articles as are in conflict with the provisions of Islamic law.” In August 2018, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud enacted a new law on juveniles, which prescribes a maximum prison sentence of 10 years for individuals under 18 years of age in cases where discretionary death sentences could otherwise apply. Under the new law, however, juveniles could still get the death penalty for hadd offenses (fixed punishments under Shariah law) or crimes punishable by qisas (retaliatory punishment). In April 2019, at least three men who were under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged offense were executed along with other 34 inmates.
(This question was last updated on April 25, 2019.).
Racial / Ethnic Composition of Death Row
Foreign nationals are at particular risk of execution for capital crimes. The first factor driving the situation is that foreign nationals are not familiar with Saudi judicial processes, and the government may make little or no effort to inform them or provide them with interpreters when necessary so that they can understand proceedings and the charges against them. This dynamic is exacerbated in cases involving a private criminal action for diyat (blood money) or qisas (the religiously stipulated retributive death penalty) against an individual who has caused the death of kin. Foreign workers are likely to be poor and thus face qisas (unless their governments or some organization can fund a pardon, or the family grants a free pardon); additionally, Arab groups that intercede for offenders by bringing influential personages to bear on issues may be less likely to intercede for non-Saudis. Foreign workers are more than 7 times as likely to be executed as Saudis are. Individuals from Europe and North America are very unlikely to be executed compared to individuals from other areas of the world. It is possible that, to some extent, domestic workers are not fully aware of the proper approach to the sulah process (substitution of diya for qisas).
Human Rights Watch has published a report on the Ismailis in southern Saudi Arabia, reporting on one incident in which a number of Ismailis were sentenced to death and a practice of religious discrimination against Ismailis that can result in application of the death penalty. While the King has generally been fairly involved in pardoning Ismailis sentenced to death, on occasion he seems unable to because the sentence of death has been pronounced as hadd.
Recent Developments in the Application of the Death Penalty
In 2008, Amnesty International reported a sharp increase in the number of executions in Saudi Arabia, with their number increasing from about 50 per year in the mid-1980’s to almost 150 in 2007.
Not all developments over that time period were negative. In 2001, Saudi Arabia responded to requests that it codify its penal law by enacting a criminal procedure code and other laws protecting the right to a fair trial. While this code does not fully protect defendants facing capital charges, it is a step forward regarding limitations on detention and at least formal recognition of the right to representation.
Saudi Arabia executed significantly fewer people in 2010 than in previous years. In fact, Capital Punishment U.K. reports that in 2010, Saudi Arabia executed 26 men for murder, rape or drugs offenses—a large drop in the number of executions and serious restriction of the scope of the death penalty compared to the several preceding years. Notably, in 2009, Saudi Arabia accepted the Human Rights Council’s recommendation that it protect the rights of individuals facing the death penalty, particularly regarding international safeguards. In that same year, Saudi Arabia ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which restricts application of the death penalty to the most serious offenses and provides for a non-derogable right to life, protection against arbitrary deprivation of life and prohibition against inhuman treatment. In 2009, Saudi Arabia also stated its acceptance of the Human Rights Council’s recommendation that it not apply the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles, albeit a month after beheading two men for crimes committed as juveniles and despite not commuting the death sentence of a maid who was convicted of a murder committed while under the age of 18.
While Saudi Arabia still retains the death penalty by stoning, we found no reports of executions by stoning over the past few years. Reported executions over the past few years have not been for crimes such as adultery. Executions for non-lethal offenses and for the non-violent offense of drug dealing or possession continue to be a concern in Saudi Arabia.
Recently, the Council of Senior Ulema (religious authorities) moved forward with a project to codify Shari’a penal law, with an aim to bringing clarity, uniformity and transparency to legal proceedings.
Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2018 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2016 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2014 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2012 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2010 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
2008 Record of Votes on the UN General Assembly Moratorium Resolution
Member(s) of World Coalition Against the Death Penalty
Other Groups and Individuals Engaged in Death Penalty Advocacy
PO Box 72054
London EC3P 3BZ
Tel 020 7553 8140
Fax 020 7553 8189
Where are judicial decisions reported?
We did not find a resource for accessing published cases on the death penalty.
NYU Law’s GlobaLex page provides a number of very useful links to law-related resources and scholarship: http://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex/saudi_arabia.htm#_Toc200894592.
The Al-Adl Journal (published by the Ministry of Justice) posts some recent judge-driven discussions, but the URL of this journal has changed during our research, so a Google search for the website is recommended.
Helpful Reports and Publications
Al-Adl Journal online (multiple articles published by the Ministry of Justice, website is variable—use Google search).
Ali Akram Khan Sherwani, Impact of Islamic Penal Laws on the Traditional Arab Society, M.D. Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1993.
Amnesty Intl., Affront to Justice: Death Penalty in Saudi Arabia, MDE 23/027/2008, Oct. 14, 2008.
Amnesty Intl., Defying World Trends—Saudi Arabia’s Extensive Use of Capital Punishment, MDE 23/015/2001, Nov. 1, 2001.
Dr. Nagaty Sanad, The Theory of Crime and Criminal Responsibility in Islamic Law: Shari’a, The Office of International Criminal Justice, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1991.
Gerald E. Lampe, ed., Justice and Human Rights in Islamic Law, International Law Institute, 1997.
Khaled Abou El Fadl, Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Culture of Ugliness in Modern Islam and Reengaging Morality, UCLA Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law, Vol. 2 p. 33, 2002-2003.
Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Death Penalty, Mercy and Islam: A Call for Retrospection, p. 73-105 in Erik C. Owens, et. al., eds., Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2004.
M. Cherif Bassiouni, Crimes and the Criminal Process, Arab Law Quarterly, Vol. 12 No. 3, p. 269, 1997.
M. Cherif Bassiouni, ed., The Islamic Criminal Justice System, Oceana Publications, Inc., 1982.
Mohamed S. El-Awa, Punishment in Islamic Law: A Comparative Study, American Trust Publications, 1982.
Muhammad Abdel Haleem et. al, Criminal Justice in Islam: Judicial Procedure in the Shari’a, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2003.
Robert Postawko, Towards an Islamic Critique of Capital Punishment, UCLA Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law, Vol. 1 p. 269, 2002.
Rodolphe J.A. De Seife, The Shari’a: An Introduction to the Law of Islam, Austin & Winfield, 1994.
S. Mahmassani, Falsafat Al-Tashri Fi Al Islam, Translated by Farhat J. Ziadeh, E.J. Brill, 1961.
Tahir Mahmood et. al., Criminal Law in Islam and the Muslim World, Institute of Objective Studies, 1st ed., 1996.
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