The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has strongly condemned the executions on Wednesday of seven people in Saudi Arabia, saying that “they clearly violate international safeguards in the use of the death penalty.”
The seven men were reportedly arrested in January 2006 and charged with organizing a criminal group, armed robbery and breaking into jewellery stores. They were sentenced to death by a court in Asir province in August 2009, and the sentences were carried out yesterday by firing squad.
“I strongly condemn the execution of these seven men,” High Commissioner Navi Pillay said in a news release.
“Under international safeguards adopted by the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and reaffirmed by the General Assembly, capital punishment may be imposed only for ‘the most serious crimes’ and only after the most rigorous judicial process. As I pointed out to the Government of Saudi Arabia before the men were executed, neither of those fundamental criteria appear to have been fulfilled in these cases.”
“The term ‘most serious crimes’ has been interpreted to mean that the death penalty – in the relatively few countries where it is still used – should only be applied to the crime of murder or intentional killing,” she said.
“In this particular case, no crime of murder or intentional killing was committed. Thus, the use of the death penalty in these seven cases constitutes violations of the international safeguards in the use of the death penalty.”
Ms. Pillay said she is also extremely concerned that the death sentences were imposed largely based on initial confessions allegedly extracted under torture, and that the allegations of torture were not investigated.
Information she had received suggested that the seven accused men had reportedly only made brief appearances before the court, and were not allowed to speak or given adequate opportunities to conduct their defence, she noted. The defendants claimed they were not present at all during the appeal stages and had no defence counsel representing them.
“These serious failings in the process, if confirmed, would constitute violations of international safeguards in the use of death penalty, especially those related to the right to a fair trial and the right to appeal,” Ms. Pillay said.
She urged the Saudi authorities to join the worldwide trend against the death penalty and, as a first step, establish a moratorium on its use.
According to the High Commissioner’s office (OHCHR), a growing number of States – around 150 in all – have either abolished capital punishment or do not practise it. Also, several UN General Assembly resolutions include a call to all States to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.
In addition to murder, Saudi Arabia applies the death penalty for crimes not considered “serious” under international norms, including drug offences, apostasy, heresy, sorcery and witchcraft. At least 27 people are believed to have been executed so far in 2013, including another two men reportedly executed on Wednesday in Riyadh and Mecca provinces, representing “a major upsurge” compared to recent years, said OHCHR.