Amnesty says Saudi Arabia executed record number of people in 2019 even as global executions declined

In its 2019 global review of the death penalty published Tuesday, April 21, the human rights organisation said that Saudi Arabia has escalated its use of the death penalty

While most of the developed world has abolished death penalties and executions, there remain some countries which still follow the form of capital punishment deemed cruel and archaic by many. The list of countries which still have executions and death penalties as a form of punishment consists of big names such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Record executions by Saudi Arabia in 2019

Saudi Arabia: Two policemen shot dead in Shiite majority Dammam
The execution of prominent Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr triggered severe unrest in the Qatif district. Reuters

In fact, human rights organisation Amnesty International publishes a report every year revealing the most prolific executioners, and its latest report claims the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia put to death a record 184 people last year – a record number for the kingdom despite a global decline in executions.

In its 2019 global review of the death penalty published Tuesday, April 21, the human rights organisation said that Saudi Arabia has escalated its use of the death penalty even as the rest of the world saw a decline in executions, including in the Asia-Pacific region.

24% increase since the previous year

According to the review report, the kingdom executed 178 men and six women in 2019. Half of them, foreign nationals. In 2018, the number of executions in the kingdom were 149, which means Saudi Arabia executed 35 or 24 percent more people in 2019.

Saudi using executions as a political weapon

Meanwhile, the majority of the executions in Saudi Arabia were drug-related offences and murder crimes. However, Amnesty also documented what it called the "increased use of the death penalty by the kingdom as a political weapon against dissidents from the Shia Muslim minority."

"Saudi Arabia's growing use of the death penalty, including as a weapon against political dissidents, is an alarming development," said Clare Algar, Amnesty International's Senior Director for Research, Advocacy and Policy regarding the kingdom's misuse of the punishment for political reasons.

Execution of Shia minorities

On April 23, 2019, Saudi Arabia executed 37 people in a mass execution, and 32 of them were Shia men convicted on "terrorism" charges following trials which Amnesty said relied on "false confessions extracted through torture."

According to Amnesty, individuals are brought before Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which was set up in 2008 to try those accused of terror-related crimes, but the facility is increasingly being used to suppress the dissent.

World's most prolific executioners

The report also suggests that only 20 countries are responsible for all known executions in the world. According to the report, the top five executing countries in 2019 were: China, with more 1000 executions, followed by Iran (around 251), Saudi Arabia (184), Iraq (at least 100) and Egypt (around 32).

China - world's largest unofficial executioner

Although China is believed to be the world's largest executioner, the human rights group's tally does not include the country because the exact number of people put to death in the country remains a state secret. However, it is widely believed that the numbers are in the thousands. According to the Amnesty review, Iran remained the world's second most prolific executioner after China, with 251 executions in 219.

Iraq's ISIS and ISIL related executions

In Iraq, the number of people executed almost doubled to at least 100 in 2019, from 52 the previous year. The rise in executions in Iraq is said to be largely contributed by the continued use of the death penalty against persons accused of being members of the Islamic State of Iraq of the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).

Executions in South Sudan, Bahrain, Yemen and Afghanistan

Authorities in the restive African nation of South Sudan executed at least 11 people in 2019, the highest number recorded since the country's formation nine years ago in 201, according to Amnesty.

Also as per the report, Saudi Arabia's neighbouring Kingdom of Bahrain also resumed executions after a one-year hiatus, executing three people during 2019. The war-battered nation of Yemen which is also the poorest country among the Gulf Arab states reportedly executed at least seven people in 2019, compared to four the year before.

In Afghanistan, no executions were carried out for the first time since 2010, as per the report. Amnesty International notes that countries such as Iran, North Korea and Vietnam, along with China, hide the full extent of their use of the death penalty by restricting access to information.

Decline in executions in Asia Pacific

Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific region also saw a drop in confirmed executions for the first time since 2011, with no recorded executions carried out in Thailand and Taiwan. Singapore also saw a sharp decline in executions from 13 executions in 2018 to just for in 2019.

Malaysia continues to observe the official temporary ban on executions established by the previous coalition government in place since July 2018. However, the current government led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin which came to power in March 2020, is yet to confirm whether it will go ahead with the earlier government's pledge to repeal the capital punishment.

Global decrease in executions

Global confirmed executions decreased for the fourth consecutive year to at least 657 in 2019 from 690 in 2018, which is a five percent decrease and the lowest recorded figure in the past decade, according to Amnesty. The human rights organisation said that several factors were responsible for the global decline in recorded executions.

Amnesty noticed a significant drop in the number of confirmed executions in countries such as Egypt, Japan, and Singapore, which have historically been strong adherents of the death penalty. Iran also reportedly executed fewer people than it had previously done for the second consecutive year following amendments to its anti-narcotics law in 2017. And for the first time since 2010, no executions were carried out in Afghanistan and there were hiatuses in Taiwan and Thailand, both countries had executed people in 2018.

The Amnesty report claims that 106 countries the world over have abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes and around 142 countries have abolished the death penalty in both law and in practice. "The death penalty is an abhorrent and inhuman punishment and there is no credible evidence that it deters crime more than prison terms," Ms Algar said. "A large majority of countries recognise this and it's encouraging to see that executions continue to fall worldwide."