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Spike in Saudi executions raises concern among rights groups

At least 90 people put to death so far this year in Saudi Arabia – more than in all of 2014

A spike in executions carried out in Saudi Arabia over the last few months has reportedly seen at least 90 people put to death since the start of the year — surpassing the Gulf state’s total of 88 for all of 2014.

Human Rights Watch commented on the surge Monday, noting that 41 of those killed this year had been sentenced for non-violent drug offenses. “Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director.

Other rights groups, including Amnesty International, have likewise condemned Saudi Arabia’s use of executions as punishments for crimes such as adultery, sorcery, apostasy, as well as drug smuggling.

"This alarming surge in executions surpasses even the country’s own previous dreadful records," Said Boumedouha, deputy Middle East and North Africa program director at Amnesty International, said.

The most common methods of carrying out death sentences in the kingdom are beheading and the firing squad. The Washington Post noted in late May that demand is such that Saudi officials are seeking to hire more executioners, seeking applicants via public job listings.

With nearly half of this year’s execution resulting from non-violent drug-related offenses, rights groups claim the kingdom is in violation of international law.

Under Article 6 of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, capital punishment should be limited to only "the most serious crimes," defined as "cases where it can be shown that there was an intention to kill, which resulted in the loss of life."

It’s unclear what has lead to the spike in executions in the country.

"We don’t know for sure," said Adam Coogle, a Jordan-based researcher for HRW.

"Some have suggested that justice reform and the hiring of more judges have given the justice system the capacity to handle more cases, while others point to the government’s desire to look tough on crime and deliver justice amid regional instability," he said. "The Saudi government hasn’t given a reason (for the increase in executions)."

Rick Lines, director of U.K.-based Harm Reduction International, told Al Jazeera that it was hard to establish if there was a link between crime rates — specifically drug smuggling — and the increase in executions.

"My instinct would tell me that rates of executions have precious little to do with whether drug smuggling is on the rise," said Lines. He added that “accurate public data available on drug arrests” were hard to come by and were “impossible to fact check."

Roughly half of those executed in Iran, such as these men hanged in the city of Qom in 2008, are found guilty on narcotics-related charges.
-/AFP/Getty Images

The tally of executions is based on announcements from the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, as carried by the Saudi Press Agency. It comes amid international pressure over its human rights record.

Among those executed this year has been Siti Zainab. Despite concerns about her mental health, the Indonesian domestic worker was put to death on April 14 after being convicted of murder.

Her case led to a row between Jakarta and Riyadh and prompted Indonesia to pull its ambassador from Saudi Arabia — a rare diplomatic incident linked to executions in the Kingdom, despite around half of cases involving foreigners.

In a move to prevent similar incidents, Indonesia announced in early May that it would stop sending domestic workers to 21 countries, including Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf Arab country is not the only one to increase its number of executions — an increase in Iran has also prompted concern.

"The unofficial count this year [in Iran] is somewhere in the low 400s, which means they are on track to surpass last year’s total," said HRW Iran Researcher Faraz Sanei. According to an Amnesty International report, Iran executed at least 289 people in 2014, with "at least 454 more that were not acknowledged by the authorities. Sanei believes that the unofficial count for 2014 executions in Iran is in the "low 700s."

He told Al Jazeera that although Iran does not publicly report all executions, the right group has received reports of 98 executions being announced between April 9 and 28 alone.

Much like as in Saudi Arabia, Sanei said that "a large portion" of this years executions in Iran were for non-violent drug offences.

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