Capital punishment in Saudi Arabia

Capital punishment is a legal penalty in Saudi Arabia, and is based on Shari'ah (or Islamic law).

The wide range of crimes which can result in the death penalty and the use of public beheading are condemned internationally. In 2011, the Saudi government reported 26 executions in the country.[1] Amnesty International counted a minimum of 79 in 2013.[2] Foreigners accounted for "almost half" of executions in 2013, mainly on convictions for drug smuggling and murder,[2] although there has not been any report of a Western national being executed in the recent history of Saudi Arabia.[3] In 2015, the number of beheadings reached a two decade high of "at least" 157[4] and 47 were executed on 2 January 2016.[5]

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.[6] The rise in death sentences during recent decades resulted from a concerted reaction by the government and the courts to a rise of violent crime in the 1970s and paralleled similar developments in the U.S. and China.[6]

Saudi Arabia is one of the last four countries that still carry out public executions.

Methods and scope

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

The death penalty can be imposed for a wide range of offences[7] including murder, rape, false prophecy, blasphemy, armed robbery, repeated drug use, apostasy,[8] adultery,[9] witchcraft and sorcery[10][11][12][13] and can be carried out by beheading with a sword,[14] or more rarely by firing squad, and sometimes by stoning.[15][16]

The 345 reported executions between 2007 and 2010 were all carried out by public beheading.[17] The last reported execution for sorcery took place in August 2014.[18][19] There were no reports of stoning between 2007 and 2010,[17] but between 1981 and 1992 there were four cases of execution by stoning reported.[20]

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."[21] (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.[8] 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."[8] 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.[8] 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.[8] "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.[8]

As of 2003, executions have not been announced in advance. They can take place any day of the week, and they often generate large crowds. Photography and video of the executions is also forbidden, although there have been numerous cases of photographed and videoed executions in the spite of the law against them.

Capital crimes

Deera Square, central Riyadh. Known locally as "Chop-chop square", it is the location of public beheadings.[22]

Sharia background

The Saudi judiciary can impose the death penalty according to three categories of criminal offence in Sharia law:[23]

A conviction requires proof in one of three ways:[26]

  1. An uncoerced confession.[26]
  2. The testimony of two male witnesses can result in conviction. This excludes "hudud crimes", in which case a confession is also required.[26]
  3. An affirmation or denial by oath can be required.[26]

Giving an oath is taken particularly seriously in a religious society such as Saudi Arabia's,[26] and a refusal to take an oath will be taken as an admission of guilt resulting in conviction.[27]


People convicted of treason can be sentenced to death, as with many other countries.

List of crimes

Saudi law allows the death penalty for many crimes. For example:

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.[30][31][32][33] Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an independent sheikh critical of the Saudi government and popular among youth[34] 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.[35] Nimr al-Nimr was executed on January 2, 2016, along with 46 other people, mostly terrorists arrested in the 2000s.[4]


In order for an individual to be convicted in a Saudi sharia law court of adultery, he/she must confess to the act three times in front of the court; otherwise four males or eight females who witnessed the actual sexual penetration must testify in front of the court.[36] 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 for men and women is stoning.[37] 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."[38] 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."[38] 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.[38] According to Mackey, in a 20-year period ending in 1987, one woman "is acknowledged to" have been executed by stoning for adultery.[38]


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[39] or if the family of the victim will choose to have the murderer executed, or to completely forgive the perpetrator.


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,[40] was executed for being convicted of practising 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.[41][42][43]

Public executions

A public beheading will typically take place around 9am. 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. Sometimes it may take several strikes before victim is decapitated.[44] After the convicted person is pronounced dead, a loudspeaker announces the crimes committed by the beheaded alleged criminal and the process is complete. 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. The severed head is usually sewn back on.[45]


The use of public beheading or stoning as the methods of capital punishment and the number of executions have attracted strong international criticism.[46] 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.[47][48] A video of the execution, posted online, drew extensive criticism.[49] In September 2011, a Sudanese migrant worker was beheaded for sorcery,[50] an execution which Amnesty International condemned as "appalling".[51] 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,[52] and led Sri Lanka to recall its ambassador.[53] 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.[54]

See also




  1. "2010 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia". U.S. State Department. 8 April 2011. Retrieved 11 July 2011.
  2. 1 2 "Death Sentences and Executions 2013" (PDF). Amnesty International. 2014. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  3. "British teacher Andrew Cannon faces beheading for friend's death in Saudi Arabia - Daily Mail Online". Mail Online.
  4. 1 2 Jamieson, Alastair; Gubash, Charlene (2 January 2016). "Arab Spring Cleric Nimr al-Nimr Among 47 Executed by Saudi Arabia". NBC News. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  5. "Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr: Anger at execution of top Shia cleric". BBC News Middle East. 3 January 2016. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  6. 1 2 Vikør, Knut S. (2005). Between God and the Sultan: A History of Islamic Law. Oxford University Press. pp. 266–267.
  7. "Saudi system condemned". The Guardian. 9 August 2003. Retrieved 27 July 2011.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 "Saudi executioner tells all". BBC News. 5 June 2003. Retrieved 11 July 2011.
  9. 1 2 Federal Research Division (2004). Saudi Arabia A Country Study. p. 304. ISBN 978-1-4191-4621-3.
  10. 1 2 3 Miethe, Terance D.; Lu, Hong (2004). Punishment: a comparative historical perspective. p. 63. ISBN 978-0-521-60516-8.
  11. 1 2 BBC News, "Pleas for condemned Saudi 'witch'", 14 February 2008 BBC NEWS
  12. 1 2 Usher, Sebastian (2010-04-01). "Death 'looms for Saudi sorcerer'". BBC News.
  13. 1 2 "Saudi Arabia's 'Anti-Witchcraft Unit' breaks another spell". The Jerusalem Post | Retrieved 2015-09-14.
  14. ABC News. "Saudi Arabia's Beheading of a Nanny Followed Strict Procedures". ABC News.
  15. "Abolish Stoning and Barbaric Punishment Worldwide!". International Society for Human Rights. Retrieved 2010-09-23.
  16. Batha, Emma; Li, Ye (29 September 2013). "Stoning - where is it legal?". Thomson Reuters Foundation. Retrieved January 26, 2014.
  17. 1 2 U.S. State Department Annual Human Rights Reports for Saudi Arabia 2007–2010: "2010 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia". U.S. State Department. 8 April 2011. Retrieved 11 July 2011.; "2009 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia". U.S. State Department. 11 March 2010. Retrieved 11 July 2011.; "2008 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia". U.S. State Department. 25 February 2009. Retrieved 11 July 2011.; "2007 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia". U.S. State Department. 11 March 2008. Retrieved 11 July 2011.
  18. Culzac, Natasha. "Saudi Arabia executes 19 in one half of August in 'disturbing surge of beheadings'". The Independent. Retrieved 2 October 2014. Mohammed bin Bakr al-Alawi was beheaded on 5 August for allegedly practicing black magic sorcery, the Saudi Gazette reports,
  19. "Saudi man executed for 'witchcraft and sorcery'". BBC News. 19 June 2012. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
  20. Vogel, Frank E. (1999). Islamic law and legal system: studies of Saudi Arabia. p. 246. ISBN 978-90-04-11062-5.
  21. "Death, crucifixion, for jewelry gang". The Saudi Gazette. 5 Aug 2009. Retrieved 8 August 2011.
  22. "Saudi Justice?". CBS News. 5 December 2007. Retrieved 18 July 2011.
  23. 1 2 3 4 5 Otto, Jan Michiel (2010). Sharia Incorporated: A Comparative Overview of the Legal Systems of Twelve Muslim Countries in Past and Present. p. 166. ISBN 978-90-8728-057-4.
  24. Dammer,, Harry R.; Albanese, Jay S. (2010). Comparative Criminal Justice Systems. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-495-80989-0.
  25. 1 2 "Saudis Face Soaring Blood-Money Sums". The Washington Post. 27 July 2008. Retrieved 11 July 2011.
  26. 1 2 3 4 5 Kritzer, Herbert M. (2002). Legal Systems of the World: A Political, Social, and Cultural Encyclopedia. p. 1415. ISBN 978-1-57607-231-8.
  27. Beling, Willard A. (1980). King Faisal and the modernisation of Saudi Arabia. p. 117. ISBN 0-7099-0137-2.
  28. Peifer, Elizabeth (2005). "The Deadth Penalty In Traditional Islamic law And As Interpreted In Saudi Arabia And Nigeria". William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law. 11 (3): 509. Retrieved 9 November 2015.
  29. Safia Safwat, Offences and Penalties in Islamic Law, 26 ISLAMIC Q., 1982, p.296
  30. Hartley, Eve (2015-09-22). "Ali Mohammed Al-Nimr Sentenced To Crucifixion In Saudi Arabia For Attending Pro-Democracy Protest". Huffington Post. Archived from the original on 2015-09-23. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  31. "Saudi Arabia: Stop execution of Ali al-Nimr". Amnesty International. 2015. Archived from the original on 2015-09-23. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  32. Crowcroft, Orlando (2015-09-27). "Who is Ali Mohammed al-Nimr and why is Saudi Arabia planning to behead and crucify him?". International Business Times. Archived from the original on 2015-09-23. Retrieved 2015-09-24.
  33. "Second Saudi juvenile to face 'beheading' for protests". Reprieve. 2015-10-06. Archived from the original on 2015-10-08. Retrieved 2015-10-08.
  34. Gfoeller, Michael (2008-08-23). "Meeting with controversial Shi'a sheikh Nimr". WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks cable: 08RIYADH1283. Archived from the original on 2012-01-23. Retrieved 2012-01-23.
  35. "Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr 'sentenced to death'". BBC News. 2014-10-15. Archived from the original on 2014-10-15. Retrieved 2014-10-15.
  36. "Tenth Greater Sin: Fornication".
  37. "Punishment for adultery in Islam".
  38. 1 2 3 4 Mackey, p. 271.
  39. Mackey, p. 270.
  40. "Saudi Arabia execution of 'sorcery' woman condemned". Daily Telegraph. 19 February 2014. Retrieved 13 Dec 2011.
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  45. "Justice By The Sword: Saudi Arabia's Embrace Of The Death Penalty". 2012-09-11. Retrieved 2014-04-05.
  46. Otto, Jan Michiel (2010). Sharia Incorporated: A Comparative Overview of the Legal Systems of Twelve Muslim Countries in Past and Present. p. 175. ISBN 978-90-8728-057-4.
  47. Sijabat, Ridwan Max (8 July 2012). "Hundreds of Indonesians on death row". The Jakarta Post. Retrieved 14 January 2013.
  48. "Indonesia 'feels cheated' by Saudi government". Jakarta Post. 21 June 2011. Retrieved 14 January 2013.
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