Relatives of prisoners on death row in Saudi Arabia fear that each day will be the last for their loved ones as the pace of executions accelerates in the Gulf kingdom.
After nearly five months of calm in which no one was killed, 24 people have been executed since early October, 18 of them in the past two weeks, according to an AFP tally based on state media reports.
They include 16 people convicted of drug-related offences, ending a moratorium on the death penalty for such offenses that was announced in January 2021.
For Zainab Abu al-Khair, whose brother Hussein has been on death row since 2015, the rise has ushered in a period of anxious waiting.
“We cannot contact him. We are always waiting for him to call. Sometimes we wait for six months or more, which of course puts us under psychological pressure and extreme terror,” the Jordanian citizen told AFP from Canada, where she lives.
Saudi officials often give advance notice of executions in murder cases, said Duaa Dhaini, a researcher with the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), primarily for the benefit of the families of murder victims.
But in most other cases, executions are not announced until after the fact.
This means that relatives of prisoners on death row often learn about the executions as well as everyone else: from state media reports that omitted the names of those executed, Dhini said.
It sometimes falls to the other prisoners to contact the families and deliver the bad news.
“Families don’t have this opportunity to say goodbye to the ones they love,” she said.
– ‘Terrified and very sad’ –
The United Nations on Tuesday condemned the escalation in executions, specifically for drug offences, calling it a “deeply regrettable step” and “contrary to international norms and standards”.
Human rights groups say Hussein Abu al-Khair’s case highlights flaws in the Saudi justice system that make it necessary to end the death penalty entirely.
Zainab said the 57-year-old Jordanian man was arrested in 2014 while crossing the border into Saudi Arabia, where he was working as a driver for a family in the city of Tabuk.
Both Zainab and the British-based NGO Reprieve say that Hussain suffered 12 days of torture before he signed a document admitting to drug trafficking.
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They say he has not been able to contact a lawyer.
AFP was unable to independently verify the allegations, and the Saudi authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that there was no legal basis for Hussain’s detention.
Last week, Hussein called a relative in Jordan to reveal that he had been transferred to an area of Tabuk prison designated for inmates imminently executed, according to his sister.
“He is very terrified and very sad, and he is confident that he has been wronged,” Zainab said.
“He is waiting for the moment of his death, having beheaded him with a sword, after a trial that was not fair at all.”
State media reports did not provide details of how the recent executions were carried out, but the wealthy Gulf kingdom has frequently carried out executions by beheading.
– A plea for ‘mercy’ –
Saudi Arabia has announced 144 executions this year as of Wednesday, according to an AFP tally, more than double last year’s total of 69.
International protests erupted in March when the kingdom executed 81 people in a single day for terrorism-related offences.
The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights is aware of 54 people on death row, including eight minors, but Daini said this number is likely far from exhaustive.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, said in an interview with The Atlantic magazine that the kingdom had “got rid of” the death penalty except in cases of murder or when “someone threatens the lives of many people,” according to a transcript released by state media in March. / March.
The Saudi Human Rights Commission, a government entity, has declared a moratorium on executions for drug offences, although the law never provided for it.
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Among those hoping for a swift end to the current wave of executions is the family of Adnan Al-Sharida, a Jordanian arrested in 2017 after customs officials accused him of trying to smuggle more than 60,000 pills of the amphetamine known as Captagon.
As with Hussein Abu al-Khair, Sharida’s relatives believe he confessed under torture and are asking Saudi officials to spare his life.
“I ask Saudi Arabia to give individuals facing peaceful charges a second chance, and to look at their families with eyes of pity and mercy,” said Sharida’s daughter, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons.
“Please save my father from execution.”