Capital punishment in Saudi Arabia

Capital punishment is a legal penalty in Saudi Arabia. The country performed at least 158 executions in 2015,[1] at least 154 in 2016,[2] at least 146 in 2017,[3] and at least 149 in 2018.[4]

Death sentences in Saudi Arabia are pronounced almost exclusively based on the system of judicial sentencing discretion (tazir) rather than Sharia-prescribed (hudud) punishments, following the classical principle that hudud penalties should be avoided if possible.[5] The rise in death sentences during recent decades resulted from a concerted reaction by the government and the courts to a rise in violent crime during the 1970s and paralleled similar developments in the U.S. and Mainland China in the late 20th century.[5] Despite having signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Saudi Arabia executes offenders who were juveniles at the time of the crime.[6]


Saudi Arabia has a criminal justice system based on a hardline and literal form of Shari'ah reflecting a particular state-sanctioned interpretation of Islam.

It is usually carried out publicly by beheading with a sword. A recent report by the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) shows that the number of beheadings in the kingdom during the first quarter of 2018 rose by over 70 percent compared to the same period last year.[7] Occasionally they can be performed by shooting.

A public beheading will typically take place around 9 a.m. The convicted person is walked into the square and kneels in front of the executioner. The executioner uses a sword known as a sulthan to remove the condemned person's head from his or her body at the neck.[8] After the convicted person is pronounced dead, a police official announces the crimes committed by the beheaded convict and the process is complete. The official might announce the same before the actual execution. This is the most common method of execution in Saudi Arabia because it is specifically called for by Sharia law. Professional executioners behead as many as ten people in a single day.[9]

Crucifixion of the beheaded body is sometimes ordered.[10] For example, in 2009, the Saudi Gazette reported that "an Abha court has sentenced the leader of an armed gang to death and three-day crucifixion (public displaying of the beheaded body) and six other gang members to beheading for their role in jewelry store robberies in Asir."[11] (this practice resembles gibbeting, in which the entire body is displayed).

In 2003, Muhammad Saad al-Beshi, whom the BBC described as "Saudi Arabia's leading executioner", gave a rare interview to Arab News.[12] He described his first execution in 1998: "The criminal was tied and blindfolded. With one stroke of the sword I severed his head. It rolled metres away... People are amazed how fast [the sword] can separate the head from the body."[12] He also said that, before an execution, he visits the victim's family to seek forgiveness for the criminal, which can lead to the criminal's life being spared.[12] Once an execution goes ahead, his only conversation with the prisoner is to tell him or her to recite the Muslim declaration of belief, the Shahada.[12] "When they get to the execution square, their strength drains away. Then I read the execution order, and at a signal I cut the prisoner's head off," he said.[12]

Capital offences

Saudi law theoretically allows the death penalty for many crimes:


Murder is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. If a murderer pays a family of the victim blood money, and the family approves of the choice, the murderer will not be executed. The criminal justice system waits until the family makes a decision on whether the family of the victim will accept blood money[24] or if the family of the victim will choose to have the murderer executed, or to completely forgive the perpetrator.

Other offences

Sharia background

The Saudi judiciary can impose the death penalty according to three categories of criminal offence in Sharia law:[25]

  • Hudud: Fixed Quranic punishments for specific crimes.[25] Hudud crimes which can result in the death penalty include apostasy, adultery, and sodomy.[26]
  • Qisas: Eye-for-an-eye retaliatory punishments.[25] Qisas crimes include murder.[25] Families of someone murdered can choose between demanding the death penalty or granting clemency in return for a payment of diyya, or blood money, by the perpetrator.[27] A trend has developed of exorbitant blood-money demands: a recent report mentions a sum of $11 million demanded in exchange for clemency.[27]
  • Tazir: A general category, including crimes defined by national regulations, some of which can be punished by death, such as drug trafficking.[25]

A conviction requires proof in one of three ways:[28]

  1. An uncoerced confession.[28]
  2. The testimony of two male witnesses can result in conviction. This excludes "hudud crimes", in which case a confession is also required.[28]
  3. An affirmation or denial by oath can be required.[28]

Giving an oath is taken particularly seriously in a religious society such as Saudi Arabia's,[28] and a refusal to take an oath will be taken as an admission of guilt resulting in conviction.[29]


In order for an individual to be convicted in a Saudi sharia law court of adultery, he/she must confess to the act four times in front of the court; otherwise four pious male Muslims or two pious men and two women who witnessed the actual sexual penetration must testify in front of the court. If the witnesses were spying on the defendants or intentionally watched the defendants commit adultery, their uprightness would be called into question and a conviction for adultery would not take place[30] According to the Islamic sharia law, the burden of proof is on the accuser; and if only one of those witnesses retracted his/her testimony then the accused will be acquitted and the remaining witnesses will be prosecuted for perjury Quran 24:4.

The execution method for adultery committed by married men and women is stoning (see Capital offences). If the conviction was established through confession, a retraction of the confession or the defendant leaving the pit while stoning is taking place results in the penalty being stayed. If the conviction was established through the testimony of four witnesses, the witnesses must initiate the stoning, and failure to do so results in the execution being stayed.[31] Sandra Mackey, author of The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, stated in 1987 that in Saudi Arabia, "unlike the tribal rights of a father to put to death a daughter who has violated her chastity, death sentences under Qur'anic law [for adultery] are extremely rare."[32] Mackey explained that "[c]harges of adultery are never made lightly. Since the penalty is so severe, women are protected from unfounded accusations of sexual misconduct".[32] During a human rights dialogue with European jurists that took place several years before 1987, a Saudi delegate acknowledged that it is difficult to have a person convicted of adultery.[32] According to Mackey, in a 20-year period ending in 1987, one woman "is acknowledged to" have been executed by stoning for adultery.[32]

Princess Misha'al was shot several times in the head for adultery in 1977.[33]


Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri, who was found in possession of talismans, was executed in the southern Najran province in June 2012. A Saudi woman, Amina bin Salem Nasser,[34] was executed for being convicted of practicing sorcery and witchcraft in December 2011 in the northern province of Jawf, and a Sudanese man (Abdul Hamid Bin Hussain Bin Moustafa al-Fakki) was executed in a car park in Medina for the same reason in September 20, 2011.[35][36][37] In 2014, Mohammed bin Bakr al-Alawi was beheaded on 5 August for allegedly practicing black magic and sorcery.[38]

Mass executions

On 2 January 2016, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 47 imprisoned civilians convicted for terrorism in 12 different provinces in the country.[39] Forty-three were beheaded and four were executed by firing squads. Among the 47 people killed was Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.[40] The execution was the largest carried out in the kingdom since 1980.[41]

On April 23, 2019, the Saudi Interior Ministry stated that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 37 imprisoned civilians[42] who had been convicted, mostly on the basis of confessions obtained under torture or written by the accused's torturers,[43][44] for terrorism-related allegations in 6 provinces in the country.[45][46][47][48] Fourteen of the people executed had been convicted in relation to their participation in the 2011–12 Saudi Arabian protests in Qatif, mostly on the basis of torture-induced confessions.[44][49] The executions were carried out by beheading,[46][50] and two of the bodies were publicly hung from a pole.[51][46] According to Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry the convicts were all Saudi nationals.[47] Thirty two of those executed belonged to the country's Shia minority.[52] One of the thirty-two, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, was 16 years old at the time of his alleged crime; executions for crimes committed by those under 18 are violations of international law.[53] According to Reprieve, two others were also under 18 at the time of their alleged crimes, Mujtaba al-Sweikat and Salman Qureish.[54]


The use of public beheading as the methods of capital punishment and the number of executions have attracted strong international criticism.[55] Several executions, particularly of foreign workers have sparked international outcries.

In June 2011, Ruyati binti Satubi, an Indonesian maid, was beheaded for killing her employer's wife, reportedly after years of abuse.[56][57] A video of the execution, posted online, drew extensive criticism.[58]

In September 2011, a Sudanese migrant worker was beheaded for sorcery,[59] an execution which Amnesty International condemned as "appalling".[60]

In January 2013 a Sri Lankan maid named Rizana Nafeek was beheaded after she was convicted of murdering a child under her care, an occurrence which she attributed to the infant choking. The execution drew international condemnation of the government's practises,[61] and led Sri Lanka to recall its ambassador.[62]

These are not isolated cases. According to figures by Amnesty International, in 2010 at least 27 migrant workers were executed and, as of January 2013, more than 45 foreign maids were on death row awaiting execution.[63]

In practice, the death penalty has also been used to sentence political protestors. Ali al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhoon were both arrested at the age of 17 in 2012 during Arab Spring protests in the Eastern Province, tortured, forced to confess, and sentenced to decapitation in 2014 and 2015.[64][65][66][67] Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an independent sheikh critical of the Saudi government and popular among youth[68] and Ali al-Nimr's uncle, was also arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death by the Specialized Criminal Court in 2014 for his role in encouraging political protests.[69] Nimr al-Nimr was executed on January 2, 2016, along with 46 other people, mostly terrorists arrested in the 2000s.[70] From the available sources about Nimr al-Nimr case it seems that Saudi officials use the term "terrorism" as cover label for "thought crimes" which would be in other countries considered as normal work of opposition politician.[71]

There has never been a credible report of a European national being executed judicially in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi authorities have been thus criticized by commentators who believe they are giving Europeans undue special protection in the criminal justice system.[72]

See also



  • Mackey, Sandra. The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom. Updated Edition. Norton Paperback. W.W. Norton and Company, New York. 2002 (first edition: 1987). ISBN 0-393-32417-6 pbk.
  • "Top Arab Spring Cleric Among 47 Executed by Saudi Arabia". NBC News. Retrieved 2016-01-02.


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  4. "Death Penalty Worldwide". Retrieved 2019-10-25.
  5. Vikør, Knut S. (2005). Between God and the Sultan: A History of Islamic Law. Oxford University Press. pp. 266–267.
  6. "Saudi Arabia executes 37 people in a single day – including three juveniles". Reprieve. Retrieved 2019-10-25.
  7. "Number of Beheadings in Saudi Arabia Rises by 70%".
  9. "Justice By The Sword: Saudi Arabia's Embrace Of The Death Penalty". 2012-09-11. Retrieved 2014-04-05.
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  18. Penalty for adultery:
  19. BBC News, "Pleas for condemned Saudi 'witch'", 14 February 2008 BBC NEWS
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