Saudi Arabia carried out at least 172 executions in 2023, despite renewed promises from the Kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to limit the scope of capital punishment.
Since the Crown Prince and his father, King Salman, assumed power in 2015, Saudi Arabia has executed at least 1,257 people, at an average of 140 people per year. The seven bloodiest years in the Kingdom’s modern history have occurred under their leadership and the rate of executions has almost doubled.
Reprieve Director Maya Foa said: “It is terrifying to think that this is business as usual in Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia. Behind the mega-investments in sport and the facade of reform, the Kingdom remains one of the world’s top executioners. Owning the wrong books, posting a critical tweet, speaking to a journalist or disagreeing with the Crown Prince can earn you a death sentence. And while world leaders stare at their shoes and agree to believe the regime’s lies, the killing continues relentlessly.”
European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR) legal director Taha al-Hajji said: “The Crown Prince has blamed ‘bad laws’ and rogue judges for Saudi Arabia’s continued execution crisis, but nothing gets done in the Kingdom without his approval. His endless empty promises of reform are contradicted by the facts: it has been yet another year of bloodshed in Saudi Arabia. Protesters and child defendants remain at imminent risk of execution with a stroke of the ruler’s pen.”
The true number of executions cannot be ascertained with confidence. ESOHR monitors multiple public sources of execution data. In 2022, the authorities announced 147 executions, but the Saudi Human Rights Commission later confirmed to Amnesty International that 196 executions had been carried out – a modern record. For instance, in January 2023, ESOHR was made aware of the executions of two Yemeni nationals the previous month that were not reported in official accounts.
There is also no way of knowing how many hundreds or even thousands of people are on death row as the Kingdom’s capital justice system is almost entirely opaque.
One notable development in 2023 is a significant increase in the number of women executed: six, including three Saudi nationals, one Yemeni, one Ghanaian and one Bangladeshi. Another is the execution of two Saudi men convicted in military courts – these rulings are rarely issued in Saudi Arabia and it is not possible to trace them or know the details of the trials there.
United Nations legal experts had written to the Saudi authorities about three of the men killed, in a bid to prevent their execution: Bahraini nationals Sadiq Thamer and Jaafar Sultan, and Reprieve client Hussein abo al-Kheir, a Jordanian taxi driver tortured into making a false confession to drug charges. The latter’s case was also raised in the UK and European parliaments.