UN experts call for immediate moratorium on executions for drug offences: Saudi Arabia


UN experts* said today they were concerned a 57- year-old Jordanian citizen may soon be executed for drug offences that do not meet the threshold for “most serious crimes” and continued to recommend the Government of Saudi Arabia to abolish the death penalty for drug convictions. Hussein Abo al-Kheir was said to be carrying captagon or amphetamine pills after being arrested at the Saudi border in 2014 while driving across from Jordan. He was sentenced to death in 2015 for alleged drug trafficking under the 2005 Law on Control of Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances.

“Under international law, States that have not yet abolished the death penalty may only impose it for the ‘most serious crimes’, involving intentional killing,” the experts said. “Drug-related offences do not meet this threshold.”

If Mr. Abo-al-Kheir’s execution is carried out, he would be the 21st person to be executed in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of November. The experts said that while in pre-trial detention, Mr. Abo al-Kheir was reportedly tortured, held in incommunicado detention, forcibly disappeared and eventually forced to sign a false confession. After his arrest, he was allegedly denied legal counsel and access to consular information.

Mr. Abo al-Kheir’s allegations of torture were reportedly not investigated. “The use of evidence and confessions extracted under torture serving to convict individuals on death row not only violates the prohibition against torture but is also in conflict with the right to fair trial under international law,” the experts said.

During his detention in Tabouk Central Prison since 2015, Mr. Abo al-Kheir has reportedly been denied medical assistance despite deteriorating mental and physical health and near-blindness, the experts said.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found the deprivation of liberty of Mr. Abo al-Kheir to be arbitrary and without legal basis and called for his release.

On 18 November 2022 he was told that he would be transferred to a “death cell” in Tabouk Central Prison.

Since 10 November 2022, 20 individuals, including 12 foreign nationals, have been executed by Saudi authorities. “We are concerned that a disproportionate number of those being sentenced to death for drug-related offences are migrants,” the experts said. “The practice amounts to discriminatory treatment of non-nationals.”

The experts were alarmed that executions happen without warning and are only confirmed after they take place in Saudi Arabia. “The failure to provide individuals on death row timely notification about the date of their execution constitutes a form of ill- treatment,” they said.

Alarmed by Saudi Arabia’s decision to end a 21-month unofficial moratorium, the experts said any measures to abolish the death penalty should be seen as progress towards the realisation of the right to life. By extension, the resumption of executions results in less protection of the right to life.

“We respectfully reiterate our call to the Government of Saudi Arabia to consider establishing an official moratorium on all executions with a view to fully abolish the death penalty and to commute the death sentences of individuals on death row for drug offences to imprisonment consistent with international human rights law,” the UN experts said.

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