Saudi Arabia: Ignoring Its Human Rights Issues

While the western media focuses on the changes that have taken place in Saudi Arabian society as control in the royal family morphs, a recent press release by Human Rights Watch shows us that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” in the world’s largest oil producer.

Let’s look at a bit of background on one of America’s two best friends in the Middle East, a nation that was recently the beneficiary of a deal for $100 billion worth of U.S.-sourced military arms.  In January 2015, 79 year-old Prince Salman bin Adbul Aziz Al Saud acceded to the Saudi throne after the death of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.  The new leader appointed his son, 29 year-old Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) as the country’s Minister of Defense; one of his first acts as Minister was to start a war in Yemen in March 2015, a conflict that has ground on with little sign of resolution for three years, unless of course you call the starvation and deaths of thousands of Yemenis “a success”.  In June 2017, after being appointed Crown Prince and heir to the Saudi throne by his father,  MBS spearheaded a regional move against Qatar, a nation that he accused of sponsoring terrorism and meddling in its neighbours’ affairs.  

One of his most important actions took place in 2016 when Prince Muhammed bin Salman announced a plan to bring social and economic changes to the kingdom and end its addiction to oil.  Saudi Vision 2030 was introduced as follows:

The plan for Saudi Arabia’s future includes three pillars:

While the Western media focussed on the privatization program, particularly the privatization of Saudi Aramco and the fact that Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its sources of revenue away from oil, there are underlying issues that show that the Saudi royal family is only willing to make changes that do not threaten their way of life, particularly through the nation’s religious bedrock; Wahhabism:

The Saudi royal family is only too aware that when regime change takes place in the Middle East, it often results in painful and permanent changes to existing leadership.  While he may be proposing a move toward religious moderation, the nation is still firmly entrenched in a top-down ruling model backed by its Wahhabist faith.

While Muhammad bin Salman has been lauded by the Western media for his role in modest social changes in Saudi Arabia including ending the ban on women drivers starting in June 2018, it is pretty obvious to outsiders (those who also live outside of Washington, D.C.) that the nation has a significant human rights problem that gets little press time since it doesn’t fit Washington’s narrative about one of its key allies in the Middle East.  In an interesting interview on 60 Minutes, MBS stated the following when asked about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Arabia believes in many of the principles of human rights. In fact, we believe in the notion of human rights, but ultimately Saudi standards are not the same as American standards. I don’t want to say that we don’t have shortcomings. We certainly do. But naturally, we are working to mend these shortcomings.

Now, let’s go back to the beginning of this posting.  Human Rights Watch recently posted the following:

Saudi Arabia has executed 48 people since the beginning of 2018, half of them for nonviolent drug crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. Many more people convicted of drug crimes remain on death row following convictions by Saudi Arabia’s notoriously unfair criminal justice system.

Saudi Arabia has carried out nearly 600 executions since the beginning of 2014, over 200 of them in drug cases. The vast majority of the remainder were for murder, but other offenses included rape, incest, terrorism, and “sorcery.”

In Saudi Arabia, death sentences for murder are usually based on the Islamic law principle qisas, or eye-for-an-eye retributive punishment, while judges hand down death sentences for drugs at their own discretion (the Islamic law principle ta’zir). Judges rely on a 1987 fatwa by the country’s Council of Senior Religious Scholars prescribing the death penalty for any “drug smuggler” who brings drugs into the country, as well as provisions of the 2005 Law on Combatting Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which prescribes the death penalty for drug smuggling. The law allows for mitigated sentences in limited circumstances.

International standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi Arabia, require countries that retain the death penalty to use it only for the “most serious crimes,” and in exceptional circumstances. In 2012, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions stated that where used, the death penalty should be limited to cases in which a person is intentionally killed and not used to punish drug-related offenses.” (my bold)

The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide finds the following about Saudi Arabia and the methods it uses for execution and the types of crimes that can be punished on a permanent basis:

Beheading: Sources indicate that public beheading is probably the common method of execution in Saudi Arabia. The condemned are sedated prior to execution.

Stoning: Public stoning can be used to execute individuals who have been convicted of acts such as adultery. The condemned are sedated prior to execution.

There are reports that at least one execution in January 2009 and two in 2008 may have taken place by shooting.  Over the past few years, reported executions have been almost exclusively by beheading, despite the prevalence of media discussion of the possibility of death by stoning. There are reports that Saudis have exposed the body (with head sewn back on) of the condemned to public indignity, including crucifixion, after execution for the crime of highway robbery resulting in death.

Saudi law allows for the death penalty in the following crimes:  aggravated murder, murder, killing without intent, terrorism-related offences resulting in death, terrorism-related offences not resulting in death, rape not resulting in death, robbery not resulting in death, arson not resulting in death, burglary not resulting in death, drug trafficking not resulting in death, drug trafficking resulting in death, drug possession, adultery, apostasy, consensual sexual relations between adults of the same sex, treason, espionage, recidivist consumption of intoxicants, sorcery and witchcraft.  

The death penalty is mandatory for cases of murder, aggravated murder, killing without intent, terrorism-related offences that result in death, terrorism-related offences not resulting in death, rape not resulting in death, drug trafficking resulting in death, adultery, consensual sexual relations between adults of the same sex and treason.

As you can see from this posting, despite the assurances of the Western media and Muhammad bin Salman, it looks like Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the death penalty is unlikely to change any time soon given the close link between the nation’s religious life and its legal system.  It is interesting to see that, despite Saudi Arabia’s obvious abuse of the most basic of human rights, Washington is able to avert its eyes when it comes to the bad behaviour of its second-best friend in the Middle East at the same time that it criticizes other nations like Syria for human rights issues.

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