Saudi Arabia: Foreign workers 'pay with their lives' in grossly unfair justice system-new report

Poor foreign workers are bearing the brunt of Saudi Arabia’s secretive and unfair death penalty system, said Amnesty International today, as it published a new report showing that a Saudi national is up to eight times more likely to escape execution through a “diya” or “blood money” payment than a foreign national.

Foreigners facing capital trials in the Kingdom are frequently unable to understand any of the proceedings if they are not Arabic speakers, are often not even represented by a lawyer and are routinely held for long periods in harsh conditions and coerced into false “confessions”.

Although Saudi Arabia fails to provide official statistics on its extensive use of the death penalty, Amnesty has recorded at least 1,695 executions between 1985 and May 2008. Of these, 830 were foreign nationals and 809 Saudis (with the nationality of 56 unknown), a highly disproportionate use of the death penalty against foreigners (who make up about a quarter of the country’s population).

Not only are foreign nationals frequently at a severe disadvantage during trials compared to locals, but, said Amnesty, they also lack the financial means or the contacts to negotiate pardons via “diya” or “blood money” arrangements. Amnesty’s report shows that one pardon has been given for every four executions of Saudi nationals, compared to one pardon for every 30 executions of foreign workers.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

“Poor foreign workers are literally paying with their lives when accused of capital crimes in Saudi Arabia.

“Frequently bamboozled by secretive and unfair trials conducted in a language they don’t even understand, they go to their deaths with little assistance from their home countries and little mercy from a grossly unfair Saudi justice system.

“The use of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia is a disgrace. The Kingdom should introduce a moratorium immediately.”

William Sampson, a joint UK-Canadian national who was tortured and sentenced to death in the country along with several British and other foreign nationals in 2001, said:

“As someone unfortunate enough to have experienced all that the Saudi system can throw at you, I know intimately the barbaric, arbitrary and inhuman manner in which Saudi justice is implemented.

“What further appals me is the muted observance of these facts by countries such as ours - ones that claim to support and uphold human rights.”

Amnesty’s 54-page report, “Affront To Justice: death penalty in Saudi Arabia”, also shows that the rate of executions in the Kingdom has increased markedly in recent years. Executions are currently being carried out at an average rate of more than two per week, most by beheading and many in public.

Part of the reason for the rapid rise in Saudi executions, Amnesty’s report shows, has been an extension of the death penalty in the late 1980s to cover “corruption on earth” (sometimes applied to political activities) and drugs-related offences. This has led to Saudi Arabia being one of the world’s most prolific users of the death penalty, including for non-lethal crimes. It executed at least 158 people last year alone, and at least another 71 in the first eight months of this year. In some cases crucifixion follows execution.

Saudi Arabia is one of the few states in the world with a high rate of executions for Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights. It is also one of the few remaining countries to execute people for crimes they committed when they were still under the age of 18.

Other cases highlighted by Amnesty’s report include:

A 39-year-old Indian woman, who is currently under sentence of death by stoning for alleged adultery, apparently following a process during which she had no legal representation.

Sabri Bogday, a married Turkish man who owned a barber’s shop in Jeddah, was sentenced to death on 31 March this year after being convicted of “apostasy” charges. He was reported to the police after supposedly insulting Islam and was tried without a lawyer or interpreter.

Mustafa Ibrahim, an Egyptian executed in Riyadh on 2 November 2007 for what the Saudi Minister of the Interior described as “sorcery” and “witchcraft”.

Six Somalis publicly beheaded on 4 April 2005. The six had been arrested in 1999, convicted for robberies and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and flogging. Neither they nor their relatives were even aware of their death sentences. The men only discovered that they were to be killed on the very morning of their executions.

Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, who was sentenced to death for murder in June 2007. She and her family say that she was 17 at the time of the crime. She was sentenced to death after a trial conducted behind closed doors at which she did not have a defence lawyer. She remains under sentence of death.

As Amnesty published its report it also said that it was concerned at the prospect of a further rise in execution numbers after the end of Ramadan on 1 October. The Saudi authorities had suspended executions during Ramadan.

  • read the report

View latest press releases