On Saturday, January 2, 2016 the Saudi authorities announced that they had executed 47 prisoners in various cities across the Kingdom in one single day
The government’s official statement said that in 43 cases the type of punishment had been ‘ta’zir’ – at the judge’s discretion, and in four it had been the prescribed punishment for ‘hadd al-hiraba’ – unlawful warfare. None of the death sentences were of the ‘qisas’ – the retaliatory type, though the Saudi media had prepared the ground in advance of the executions by talking about them being qisas. ALQST strongly rejects the death penalty and considers this an appalling way for the Saudi authorities to start the new year. ALQST also highlights the number of associated human rights violations that have led to these executions:
1. A large number of those executed had been sent by the Saudi government and its allies to fight in Afghanistan, and went there with the authorities’ blessing and in liaison with official agencies of other countries. On their return they were harassed, persecuted and placed under arrest. ALQST holds the Saudi authorities responsible for causing them to turn to violence and take up arms since being sent to fight and relieved of other day-to-day commitments, and then continuing to push them in this direction by not facilitating their rehabilitation back into society and normal life.
2. After being arrested, or in some cases turning themselves in, a number of them were severely tortured and only brought to trial after years of physical and psychological torture that even drove some of the prisoners executed insane. The Authorities forced them to confess under duress, to activities ALQST cannot confirm actually took place. When a defendant informed the judge they had been subjected to torture, the Courts would send them back for interrogation and further torture before hearing his confessions again, and accepting them, rather than ordering an independent inquiry into the torture claims. Confessions extracted under torture are inadmissible in accordance with the UN Convention against Torture.
3. Most stages of the trials were held in secret, with lawyers only able to attend a very few sessions. No independent observers or media were allowed to be present, except newspapers loyal to the Saudi authorities. Holding trials in secrecy is liable to pervert the course of justice.
4. The trials did not meet the conditions of a fair hearing, and had many legal flaws. The prosecution failed to prove a number of charges, including the claim that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr had called for violence and resisted the police by force of arms. No witnesses were produced to support this, yet the courts went ahead and passed death sentences.
5. Some of those executed had surrendered to the authorities when it was announced that charges would be dropped against those who turned themselves in voluntarily. The Authorities then reneged on its promises and executed them, which is bound to make the situation even worse and deter anyone involved or charged with violence from recanting, and possibly even encourage suspects to turn to violence rather than away from it.
6. The Saudi anti-terrorism law introduced in 2014 classifies all acts of opposition as terrorism, blurring the distinction between violent acts and peaceful civil actions by political or human rights activists, such as forming parties, staging demonstrations and defending human rights. The Saudi authorities put such civil society activists on trial in the Specialised Criminal Court set up to handle terrorist cases, and have also tried several of them under the anti-terrorism law. Failing to distinguish between peaceful and violent actions only serves to feed the violence and turn angry young men in that direction.
7. The concept behind ta’zir punishments is that there is no clear rationale for sentencing once a verdict is reached. The appropriate penalty is a matter for the judge’s discretion, not something laid down in the Qur’an or Sunna (Teachings of the Prophet). Most religious scholars do not accept that this ta’zir discretion extends to the death penalty, but the Saudi government insists that judges have the power to inflict such punishment on anyone according to their own personal judgement. It is with qisas, however, that the Qur’an prescribes the killing of someone who has deliberately committed murder and the victim’s family refuse to waive their right to avenge the killing. Yet none of the 47 executed had a verdict of qisas. The government cannot take refuge in Shari’a law and tell society and the world through its official media that the verdict was qisas when according to their own official statement it was no such thing. ALQST considers this a fraudulent attempt to trick the Muslim world and rebut criticism from the international community, using Shari’a law as an excuse while the actual verdicts betray the fact that the judges used their own discretion.
8. The Saudi judiciary is not independent, and is not guided in its judgements by a clear and transparent legal code. Indeed, the Saudi authorities refuse to regulate the judiciary by law, and to produce a written code of law. They say judges have the right to use their discretion in reaching their verdicts, yet the Specialised Criminal Court has shown itself to be totally subservient to the Interior Ministry. In its trials it uses the anti-terrorism law, which puts the authority of the Interior Minister above the authority of the court and stipulates that he has the right to intervene in judicial proceedings. On a number of occasions the dates of SCC hearings involving human rights activists have been announced by the security services, and the Justice Ministry’s spokesman delivered his statement about the recent executions from Interior Ministry headquarters. The judiciary has no independence whatsoever, either in the laws it follows or the judgements it hands down.
ALQST calls on the international community to join us in deploring the step the Saudi authorities have taken, and to apply pressure to stop them from doing the same again. We would caution against remaining silent or quietly condoning their action, as this will encourage the Authorities to execute even more people including political opponents and human rights activists, who in the eyes of the government are no different from those who practise violence.
ALQST calls upon the United Nations and its Human Rights Council to take a firm stance towards the Saudi authorities, who have gained Consultative Status on the Council. It is a disgrace to the world that a State holding this position, which should stand up for human rights, should execute 47 of its citizens in a single day.
We call on everyone to avoid being drawn into uncontrolled and unlawful reactions, but to resist abuse and expose it to the world by all legitimate and peaceful means.
We call on the Saudi authorities to ensure the independence of the judiciary from the influence of the King and the orders of the Interior Ministry, to regulate the judiciary by law, to ensure judges are qualified, and to build up an impartial, independent judiciary guided in its judgements by clear written laws, fairly and equitably applied.
We call on the Authorities to allow Saudi society to participate in building the institutions of civil society, creating objective and independent media and institutions that can monitor the performance of government without fear of punishment by the Ministry of Interior.
We call upon the Kingdom to strike down the anti-terrorism law that incites violence and feeds terrorism rather than combating it; abolish the Specialised Criminal Court and bring violent cases to courts that have been strengthened in legal terms and given real independence; and drop all charges against political opponents and human rights activists.
We call on the Kingdom to undertake genuine reforms, starting with the judiciary; allow people to participate and hold authority to account; allow peaceful coexistence and cohesion among different groups within society instead of endless provocations and attempts to create sectarian strife and hatred; compensate victims of the misguided policies of the past; and give security of the whole nation and its citizens priority over the vested interests of the ruling family, with all their disastrous consequences for the country.