Reflections on the Death Penalty in Saudi Arabia, its reliance on Torture & Suggestions for collective, future action

Intervention delivered online by Drewery Dyke for Salam for Democracy and Human Rights at the 2023 General Assembly of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty (WCADP), 23 June 2023, Nairobi, Kenya.

The death penalty in the Gulf is dominated by Saudi Arabia

According to Amnesty International, just three countries in south west Asia and North Africa (SWANA) account for 90% of all known executions. They are Iran, Saudi Arabia – with 196 executions in 2022 – and Egypt.

Scores of human rights activists working on what is often called the Middle East and North Africa – have long called on the international community to more fully engage with the region.

Football’s World Cup has recently been held in Qatar; COP28 will be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in December; Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are engaged in massive sports, arts and cultural investments as well as other, significant economic investments around the world. In 2022, the UAE invested over US$30 million in Kenya alone. As these states engage in the world, the world’s growing abolitionist movement is called upon to engage in them.

The Saudi Arabian authorities carried out 196 executions in 2022. The method they use – in our view, one that is inherently a form of torture – is beheading.

Source: Amnesty International Death Penalty Report 2022

Gulf state 

(north to south)

2022 Recorded executions 2022 Recorded Death Sentences People known to be under sentence of death at the end of 2022
Kuwait 7 16+ 24+
Saudi Arabia 196 12+ 21+
Bahrain 0 2+ 41+
Qatar 0 + +
UAE 0 2+ 11+
Oman 0 0 +


According to our colleagues at the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR), “between 2010-2021, at least 1,243 people were executed”. They added that:“The six bloodiest years of executions in Saudi Arabia’s recent history have all occurred under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022)”. 

From 2010-2014 there was an average of 70.8 executions per year, but after King Salman came to power, from 2015, over the 2015-2022 period, there was an average of 129.5 executions per year: a rise of 82%.

Between 2010 to 2021, Saudi Arabia executed 490 foreign nationals, or 39% of the total number of executions that they carried out. Over that same period, foreign nationals faced the death penalty nearly 3 times more than nationals, in relation to drug trafficking, an act that does not directly have lethal consequences. Again, between 2010 and 2021, according to the ESOHR, at least 31 women were executed. Of those, 23 were foreign nationals, of whom at least 13 were domestic workers.

And there is more. 

In March 2022, in the span of 24 hours, they executed 81 individuals.  They included Yemenis, Syrians and other non-Saudi Arabia nationals but 41 were from Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority.

While many were for recognisably criminal offences, including murder, the Saudi Press Association reported that others were convicted for “pledging allegiance to foreign terrorist organisations, such as Isis (Islamic State), al-Qaeda and the Houthis” or for “deviant beliefs”. Another account of the charges identified them as “disrupting the social fabric and national cohesion” and “participating in and inciting sit-ins and protests”. The latter describe acts that are protected by the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. 

In short – the marginalised and vulnerable may be at particular risk in a justice system not known for its safeguards. 

Those detained, facing the death penalty  have included individuals under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged offence; they faced arrest for acts that may not have event constituted an internationally recognisable offence; followed by prolonged pre-trial detention without access to legal representation of their choice – when torture is most likely to occur. 

Despite being a state party to the Convention against Torture (CAT) since 1997, the country submitted its first national report a decade late. 

Our partners, ESOHR, ALQST and others have identified 3 junctures in the administration of justice in Saudi Arabia when torture is most likely to occur: 

  • at the time of arrest and immediately after;
  • during formal, pre-trial detention
  • and even after conviction. 

That is, at every stage in the criminal justice system.

ESOHR research published in June 2022 set out examples in respect to these findings.

They found that border guards made arrests and that detainees faced beating and other cruel, inhuman and degrading (CID) treatment amounting to torture; that mass arrests carried out in 2017 in eastern Saudi Arabia (Qatif) by Special Forces on grounds of counter-terrorism resulted in instances of torture; and that police stations themselves were locations in which officials tortured. ESOHR has detailed 2 instances of torture in pre-trial detention and a furthew 14 cases of torture during trial proceedings, notably in cases before the Specialised Criminal Court, the very one identified by the Committee against Torture. In 2022, ESOHR also set out 4 instances of post-conviction torture in detention.

For example:

In May 2014, border guards near the Jordanian border detained Hussain Abu al-Khair, a Jordanian of a poor background, working for a Saudi Arabia national as a driver. Officials asserted to have found a significant amount of a synthetic drug in his car. He denied they were his. His sister later said that he faced “twelve days of torture, including being suspended upside down by his ankles and being hit with sticks”. According to Human Rights Watch, Abu al-Khair later recanted his confession in court, stating that it was merely “the words of the investigator,” but the judge accepted the original confession as evidence and in January 2015 sentenced Abu al-Khair to death. In March 2017, an appeal court removed al-Khair’s guilty verdict; in November 2017, following a retrial ordered by the Saudi government, al-Khair was once again found guilty and sentenced to death.In March 2023, Saudi Arabia executed him.


In May 2015, border guards likewise detained 2 Bahraini nationals, Jaafar Sultan and Sadiq Thamer, who crossed the bridge from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. Detained without an arrest warrant, they were subject to enforced disappearance – the family knew only of the arrest via local press reports.

In August 2015 – 3 months after his arrest – officials permitted Sadiq Thamer to contact his family. It later emerged that during his enforced disappearance at the General Investigation Prison in Dammam, officials held Thamer in solitary confinement for 100 days. They tortured him and forced him to sign a “confession”.

The government charged them with participating in demonstrations in Bahrain in 2011; covering up wanted persons in Bahrain, misleading the investigation authorities in Saudi Arabia, participating in the formation of a terrorist cell in Bahrain, receiving military and security training, and smuggling explosive materials to Saudi Arabia. They tried the 2 men in the Specialized Criminal Court, which is under the supervision of the ruler. 

A lawyer was not appointed for the two young men until after the trial sessions began, and the lawyer did not have access to all documents and information.During the trial, their defence team requested that evidence for the allegations be produced but the government refused to provide any.

Sentenced to death in November 2021; the Court of Appeal upheld the ruling in January 2022. At that stage, the United Nations Special Procedures called on the government to halt their execution, noting that the grounds on which the decision was made was flawed and would make its imposition arbitrary. On 6 April 2022 the Supreme Court upheld the ruling and on DATE executed them.

Suggestions for collective, future action

As I said at the start, as Gulf states and their leaders engage in the world, we are called upon to engage with them.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 – a national action plan for socio-economic development – contains no vision about a fairer justice system. And we can remind the Saudi Arabia authorities that in a March 2022 interview, Mohammad Bin Salman claimed work was underway to end the death penalty. How is that working out?

Such issues are likewise absent in Bahrain’s Vision 2030 but its National Human Rights Plan, 2022-2026 does provide an entry point. Let’s take it. 

Alongside this, both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain should prioritise the visit by, for example, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, to assess procedures in both countries. Bahrain has expressly denied such visits for over a decade. 

However flawed states’ National Institutions for Human Rights (NIHR) may be, in the last quarter of 2022, before the bi-annual UN General Assembly resolution on a Global Moratorium on the Death Penalty, in December 2022, Bahrain’s NIHR urged the government to vote for it. It did not  do so, but the NIHR’s position speaks to a changing discourse. We believe that we can help develop this discussion.

The Gulf states, like many others, have a tradition of commutations. In 2022, Kuwait commuted one person. Let’s call for a large-scale, systematic commutation, recognising that in many cases, the trials were flawed. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s death rows could be much reduced. But we need to work together to call for it.

Let’s explore ways we can engage with others to take politics, vindictiveness and revenge out of judicial systems and replace them by technical capacity.

For example, in February 2021, Bahrain’s Court of Cassation in Bahrain overturned the conviction of a man convicted by a lower court in 2019 for murdering his brother-in-law a year earlier. The Court of Cassation heard expert testimony that the man had  bipolar disorder and ordered that he be confined to a secure facility. 

Let’s explore whether we can work to limit the scope of application of the death penalty by engaging with, for example, the Arab League, through its own human rights mechanisms. In 2022, 8 of 22 Arab League states executed people, of which 2 were in the Gulf – Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

ECPM’s 2020 report on the place of the death penalty in member states Organisation of Islamic Cooperation suggests that this institutional approach can mainstream abolitionist discourse.

The EU has targeted specific individuals in specific states for human rights violations, including grossly unfair trial and torture. We need to work with EU officials to expand this tool to the Gulf. The EU must sanction the judges and ministers who signed off on fundamentally flawed trials that result in people being killed. In their cyclical ‘human rights dialogues’ with members of the Gulf states, the EU should make it clear to their counterparts that officials who send people to their deaths after unfair trials cannot visit the EU or have any dealings with enterprises based there.

And globally, let’s explore the idea that international law can and should categorize the death penalty as torture per se. International courts no longer provide for it since they recognise that  The death penalty, in fact, always and inevitably inflicts severe pain and suffering rising to the level of torture.” Around the world, courts tell individuals that they will die – by hanging, being shot or having their head cut off. Just telling someone that they will die is torture, let alone the method used.



1 ‘All known; means: not including China, where the most take place, but where the figures are not known. This info is taken from Amnesty’s 2022 Death Penalty report: 

2 Iran – at least 576 executions; Egypt – 24

3 See: – mostly loans, it seems – they will get their money back and then some!

4 Where a + symbol is used, it means that Amnesty International has confirmed that an execution or death sentence has taken place but had insufficient information to provide a credible minimum figure. See page 6, of the Amnesty International Death Penalty Report 2022, 

5 Reprieve / ESOHR – Bloodshed and Lies: Mohammed bin Salman’s Kingdom of Executions (report), at:

6 This is cited in The Guardian / Reuters – Saudi Arabia executes 81 men in 24 hours  / Officials say those executed were convicted of charges including terrorism and holding ‘deviant beliefs’, 12 March 2022, at:

7 Amnesty International – Annual Report: Saudi Arabia, (for events in) 2022, at: 

8 United Nations, Committee against Torture / Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – Concluding observations on the second periodic report of Saudi Arabia, UN reference: CAT/C/SAU/CO/2, 8 June 2016, at: – The Committee expressed concern over the definition of torture; its criminalisation; the prosecution of perpetrators of torture; the use of corporal punishment; lack of fun damental legal safeguards;  the place of torture in the counter-terrorism law and Specialized Criminal Court; the use of torture in reprisals against and harassment, intimidation and arrest of human rights defenders and journalists; the lack of independence of the judiciary; coerced confessions and the use of torture in the Ministry of Interior’s General investigation Directorate, or al-Mabahith. They expressed concern about the continued use of the death penalty and called for a moratorium on its imposition. The Committee also called for measures of redress and rehabilitation to be put in place.

9 See: ESOHR – Torture in Saudi Arabia: An Institutional Practice Under the Supervision of the King and the Crown Prince, or:

التعذيب في السعودية: ممارسة مؤسساتية بإشراف الملك وولي العهد


27 June، 2022

10 In March 2016, Makki al-Arayedh was killed following his arrest at a police checkpoint between Awamiya and Safwa, two locations in eastern Saudi Arabia. The family reportedly found evidence that he had been beaten and electrocuted. See: ESOHR – Torture in Saudi Arabia: An Institutional Practice Under the Supervision of the King and the Crown Prince, or:

التعذيب في السعودية: ممارسة مؤسساتية بإشراف الملك وولي العهد


27 June، 2022

11 See the statement cited above. ESOHR found evidence of torture in (1) al-Ha’ir Prison; (2) Dammam Investigative Prison; (3) Dhahban Prison and (4) al-Tarfiya Prison. They cited the case of Abbas al-Hassan, held in solitary and denied access to medicine prior to execution in April 2019.

12 To access Saudi Arabia’s VIsion 2030, see: 

13 The Atlantic – Graeme Wood: Absolute Power, 3 March 2022, at (note: there is a pay wall) 

14 Al-Ayam – A judicial precedent acquitting a defendant sentenced to death due to bipolar disorder / After a three-hour session to interrogate the psychiatrist, 24 February 2021;

سابقة قضائية ببراءة متهم محكوم بـ «الإعدام» بسبب إصابته باضطراب ثنائي القطب / بعد جلسة امتدت لثلاث ساعات لاستجواب الطبيب النفسي


15 Amnesty International Death Penalty Report 2022,

16 ECPM / Nael Georges – The Process of Abolishing the Death Penalty in Member States of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, 2020, at: 

17 John Bessler, Professor of Law, University of Baltimore School of Law – A Torturous Practice: Prohibiting the Death Penalty’s Use Through a Peremptory Norm of International Law, 4 May 2023, at: