Capital punishment in Saudi Arabia

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The use of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia is based on Shari'ah (or Islamic law) and is condemned internationally because of the wide range of crimes which can result in the death penalty and because it is usually carried out by public beheading. In 2011, the Saudi government reported 26 executions in the country.[1] Amnesty International counted a minimum of 79 in 2013.[2] Foreigners are not exempt, accounting for "almost half" of executions in 2013.[2] In fact, there are many foreigners (especially those from the developing world) who are routinely executed mainly for drug smuggling and murder. There has not been any report of a Western national being executed in the recent history of Saudi Arabia.[3]

Unlike executions in most other countries that have not abolished the death penalty, executions of offenders are not performed privately in prisons, but publicly in central Riyadh, and have been called the "only form of public entertainment" in Saudi Arabia "apart from football matches".[4] It is one of the last four countries to still carry out public executions and the only country to carry them on regularly.

Methods and scope[edit]

Saudi Arabia has a criminal justice system based on a hardline and literal form of Shari'ah law reflecting a particular state-sanctioned interpretation of Islam.

The death penalty can be imposed for a wide range of offences[5] including murder, rape, false prophecy, blasphemy, armed robbery, repeated drug use, apostasy,[6] adultery,[7] witchcraft and sorcery[8] and can be carried out by beheading with a sword,[9] or more rarely by firing squad, and sometimes by stoning.

The 345 reported executions between 2007 and 2010 were all carried out by public beheading.[10] The last reported execution for sorcery took place in August 2014.[11][12] There were no reports of stoning between 2007 and 2010,[10] but between 1981 and 1992 there were four cases of execution by stoning reported.[13]

Crucifixion of the beheaded body is sometimes ordered.[8] For example, in 2009, the Saudi Gazette reported that "An Abha court has sentenced the leader of an armed gang to death and three-day crucifixion (public displaying of the beheaded body) and six other gang members to beheading for their role in jewelry store robberies in Asir."[14] (This practice resembles gibbeting, in which the entire body is displayed).

In 2003, Muhammad Saad al-Beshi, whom the BBC described as "Saudi Arabia's leading executioner", gave a rare interview to Arab News.[6] He described his first execution in 1998: "The criminal was tied and blindfolded. With one stroke of the sword I severed his head. It rolled metres away...People are amazed how fast [the sword] can separate the head from the body."[6] He also said that before an execution he visits the victim's family to seek forgiveness for the criminal, which can lead to the criminal's life being spared.[6] Once an execution goes ahead, his only conversation with the prisoner is to tell him or her to recite the Muslim declaration of belief, the Shahada.[6] "When they get to the execution square, their strength drains away. Then I read the execution order, and at a signal I cut the prisoner's head off," he said.[6]

As of 2003, executions were not announced in advance and could take place any day of the week. As a consequence of this and their status as the "only form of public entertainment" in Saudi Arabia "apart from football matches", they often generate large, quickly gathering crowds. Also as of 2003, photography and video of the executions was forbidden.[4]

Capital crimes[edit]

Deera Square, central Riyadh. Known locally as "Chop-chop square", it is the location of public beheadings.[15]

Sharia background[edit]

The Saudi judiciary can impose the death penalty according to three categories of criminal offence in Sharia law:[16]

  • Hudud: Fixed Quranic punishments for specific crimes.[16] Hudud crimes which can result in the death penalty include apostasy, adultery, and sodomy.[17]
  • Qisas: Eye-for-an-eye retaliatory punishments.[16] Qisas crimes include murder.[16] Families of someone murdered can choose between demanding the death penalty or granting clemency in return for a payment of diyya, or blood money, by the perpetrator.[18] A trend has developed of exorbitant blood-money demands: a recent report mentions a sum of $11 million demanded in exchange for clemency.[18]
  • Tazir: A general category, including crimes defined by national regulations, some of which can be punished by death, such as drug trafficking.[16]

A conviction requires proof in one of three ways:[19]

  1. An uncoerced confession.[19]
  2. The testimony of two male witnesses can result in conviction. This excludes "hudud crimes", in which case a confession is also required.[19]
  3. An affirmation or denial by oath can be required.[19]

Giving an oath is taken particularly seriously in a religious society such as Saudi Arabia's,[19] and a refusal to take an oath will be taken as an admission of guilt resulting in conviction.[20]


People convicted of treason can be sentenced to death, as with many other countries. It is worthy to note that proselytizing by non-Muslims, including the distribution of non-Muslim religious materials such as Bibles, is illegal. Saudi Arabia has just recently passed a law recommending the death penalty for anyone caught carrying or smuggling a bible into the country.[21][22]

List of crimes[edit]

Saudi law allows the death penalty for many crimes. For example:


In order for an individual to be convicted in a Saudi sharia court of adultery, he/she must confess to the act three times in front of the court, or four males or eight females who witnessed the sexual penetration must testify in front of the court.[23] The burden of proof is on the accuser. The execution method for adultery for men and women is stoning.[24] Sandra Mackey, author of The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, stated in 1987 that in Saudi Arabia, "unlike the tribal rights of a father to put to death a daughter who has violated her chastity, death sentences under Qur'anic law [for adultery] are extremely rare."[25] Mackey explained that "[c]harges of adultery are never made lightly. Since the penalty is so severe, women are protected from unfounded accusations of sexual misconduct."[25] During a human rights dialog with European jurists that took place several years before 1987, a Saudi delegate acknowledged that it is difficult to have a person convicted of adultery.[25] According to Mackey, in a 20-year period ending in 1987, one woman "is acknowledged to" have been executed by stoning for adultery.[25]


Murder is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. If a murderer pays a family of the victim Blood money, and the family approves of the choice, the murderer will not be executed. The criminal justice system waits until the family makes a decision on whether the family of the victim will accept blood money.[26] If the family of the victim chooses to have the murderer executed, the family has the right to execute the convicted. Sandra Mackey said "[t]he most gruesome beheadings are those carried out by the victim's relatives where, lacking the professionalism of the public executioner, the condemned is repeatedly hacked and chopped until he dies."[25]


The use of public beheading or stoning as the methods of capital punishment and the number of executions have attracted strong international criticism.[27] Several executions, particularly of foreign workers have sparked international outcries. In June 2011 Ruyati binti Satubi, an Indonesian maid, was beheaded for killing her employer's wife, reportedly after years of abuse.[28][29] A video of the execution, posted online, drew extensive criticism.[30] In September 2011, a Sudanese migrant worker was beheaded for sorcery,[31] an execution which Amnesty International condemned as "appalling".[32] In January 2013 a Sri Lankan maid named Rizana Nafeek was beheaded after she was convicted of murdering a child under her care, an occurrence which she attributed to the infant choking. The execution drew international condemnation of the government's practises,[33] and led Sri Lanka to recall its ambassador.[34] These are not isolated cases. According to figures by Amnesty International, in 2010 at least 27 migrant workers were executed and, as of January 2013, more than 45 foreign maids were on death row awaiting execution.[35]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "2010 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia". U.S. State Department. 8 April 2011. Retrieved 11 July 2011. 
  2. ^ a b "Death Sentences and Executions 2013". Amnesty International. 2014. Retrieved 19 September 2014. 
  3. ^ "British teacher Andrew Cannon faces beheading for friend's death in Saudi Arabia - Daily Mail Online". Mail Online. 
  4. ^ a b Bradley, John R. (2005). Saudi Arabia Exposed : Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. Palgrave. p. 137. 
  5. ^ "Saudi system condemned". The Guardian. 9 August 2003. Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Saudi executioner tells all". BBC News. 5 June 2003. Retrieved 11 July 2011. 
  7. ^ Federal Research Division (2004). Saudi Arabia A Country Study. p. 304. ISBN 978-1-4191-4621-3. 
  8. ^ a b Miethe, Terance D.; Lu, Hong (2004). Punishment: a comparative historical perspective. p. 63. ISBN 978-0-521-60516-8. 
  9. ^ ABC News. "Saudi Arabia's Beheading of a Nanny Followed Strict Procedures". ABC News. 
  10. ^ a b U.S. State Department Annual Human Rights Reports for Saudi Arabia 2007–2010: "2010 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia". U.S. State Department. 8 April 2011. Retrieved 11 July 2011. ; "2009 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia". U.S. State Department. 11 March 2010. Retrieved 11 July 2011. ; "2008 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia". U.S. State Department. 25 February 2009. Retrieved 11 July 2011. ; "2007 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia". U.S. State Department. 11 March 2008. Retrieved 11 July 2011. 
  11. ^ Culzac, Natasha. "Saudi Arabia executes 19 in one half of August in 'disturbing surge of beheadings'". The Independent. Retrieved 2 October 2014. Mohammed bin Bakr al-Alawi was beheaded on 5 August for allegedly practicing black magic sorcery, the Saudi Gazette reports, 
  12. ^ "Saudi man executed for 'witchcraft and sorcery'". BBC News. 19 June 2012. Retrieved 19 June 2012. 
  13. ^ Vogel, Frank E. (1999). Islamic law and legal system: studies of Saudi Arabia. p. 246. ISBN 978-90-04-11062-5. 
  14. ^ "Death, crucifixion, for jewelry gang". The Saudi Gazette. 5 Aug 2009. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  15. ^ "Saudi Justice?". CBS News. 5 December 2007. Retrieved 18 July 2011. 
  16. ^ a b c d e Otto, Jan Michiel (2010). Sharia Incorporated: A Comparative Overview of the Legal Systems of Twelve Muslim Countries in Past and Present. p. 166. ISBN 978-90-8728-057-4. 
  17. ^ Dammer,, Harry R.; Albanese, Jay S. (2010). Comparative Criminal Justice Systems. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-495-80989-0. 
  18. ^ a b "Saudis Face Soaring Blood-Money Sums". The Washington Post. 27 July 2008. Retrieved 11 July 2011. 
  19. ^ a b c d e Kritzer, Herbert M. (2002). Legal Systems of the World: A Political, Social, and Cultural Encyclopedia. p. 1415. ISBN 978-1-57607-231-8. 
  20. ^ Beling, Willard A. (1980). King Faisal and the modernisation of Saudi Arabia. p. 117. ISBN 0-7099-0137-2. 
  21. ^ "Saudi Arabia's New Law Imposes Death Sentence for Bible Smugglers?". Christian Post. 
  23. ^ "Tenth Greater Sin: Fornication". 
  24. ^ "Punishment for adultery in Islam". 
  25. ^ a b c d e Mackey, p. 271.
  26. ^ Mackey, p. 270.
  27. ^ Otto, Jan Michiel (2010). Sharia Incorporated: A Comparative Overview of the Legal Systems of Twelve Muslim Countries in Past and Present. p. 175. ISBN 978-90-8728-057-4. 
  28. ^ Sijabat, Ridwan Max (8 July 2012). "Hundreds of Indonesians on death row". The Jakarta Post. Retrieved 14 January 2013. 
  29. ^ "Indonesia 'feels cheated' by Saudi government". Jakarta Post. 21 June 2011. Retrieved 14 January 2013. 
  30. ^ "Ruyati beheading is a blow to SBY’s claims". Jakarta Post. 20 June 2011. Retrieved 14 January 2013. 
  31. ^ "Sudanese man executed in Saudi Arabia for ’witchcraft and sorcery’". Sudan Tribune. 24 September 2011. Retrieved 15 January 2013. 
  32. ^ "Saudi Arabia executes man convicted of "sorcery"". Amnesty International. 20 September 2011. Retrieved 15 January 2012. 
  33. ^ Chamberlain, Gethin (13 January 2013). "Saudi Arabia's treatment of foreign workers under fire after beheading of Sri Lankan maid". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 January 2013. 
  34. ^ "The plight of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia". Al Jazeera. 12 January 2013. Retrieved 14 January 2013. 
  35. ^ "The beheading of a housemaid in Saudi Arabia highlights slave-like conditions". The Independent. 15 January 2013. Retrieved 15 January 2013.