Saudi Arabia has executed at least 151 people this year, the most since 1995 and far above the annual figure in recent years, which rarely exceeded 90.
On Monday Amnesty International criticized the wave of executions, calling it "a grim new milestone in the Saudi Arabian authorities" use of the death penalty.
"The Saudi Arabian authorities appear intent on continuing a bloody execution spree which has seen at least 151 people put to death so far this year — an average of one person every two days," said James Lynch, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International. "The use of the death penalty is abhorrent in any circumstance but it is especially alarming that the Saudi Arabian authorities continue to use it in violation of international human rights law and standards, on such a wide scale, and after trials which are grossly unfair and sometimes politically motivated."
The last time Saudi Arabia executed more than 150 people in a single year was when 192 executions were recorded in 1995. No one at Saudi Arabia's Justice Ministry was immediately available to comment on the surge in the numbers of executions. But diplomats have speculated it may be because more judges have been appointed, allowing a backlog of appeals cases to be heard.
Saudi Arabia's current King Salman rose to power after the death of King Abdullah in January 2015, and has moved to consolidate authority among his own branch of the royal family. Upon assuming power, he shook up the cabinet, appointed a new minister of justice, and placed functionaries loyal to him in positions of power throughout the state bureaucracy.
Saudi Arabia has long been ranked among the top five countries to use capital punishment. It ranked number three in 2014, after China and Iran, and ahead of Iraq and the United States, according to figures from Amnesty International. The same five countries executed the most prisoners in the first six months of 2015.
Defenders of the Saudi death penalty say beheadings, usually with a single sword stroke, are at least as humane as lethal injections used in the United States.
Concerns over the increase in executions have been further compounded by the apparent use of the death penalty as a political tool to clamp down on Saudi Arabian Shi'a Muslim dissidents.
In one of the most high profile death penalty cases, last month the Saudi Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a prominent Shi'a Muslim cleric who is a longtime critic of the ruling regime. Three other Shia activists — Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, Dawood Hussein al-Marhoon and Abdullah Hasan al-Zaherwere were also arrested in recent months. Their lawyers report they have been tortured and are facing the death penalty.
Amnesty said the in general, the death penalty is disproportionately used against foreigners in Saudi Arabia. Of the 63 people executed this year for drug-related charges, 45 were foreigners. The total number of foreigners executed so far this year is 71. These Foreigners are mostly guest workers from poor countries, and they are particularly vulnerable, Amnesty said, since they typically do not know Arabic and are denied adequate translation in court.
On Sunday, Iran summoned Saudi Arabia's charge d'affaires in Tehran to complain about the recent execution of three Iranian nationals on charges of drug smuggling. Just a day before, a video leaked online showing what could be that execution: a grainy cell-phone video showing a group of men gathering to watch as an executioner beheads three unidentified men.
In the video, the men kneel on the pavement in what appears to be a public square which the unverified video says is located in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. The executioner wields a long curbed sword, raises it above his head, and with a quick chop to the back of each man's neck, decapitates them before a crowd of onlookers and near a busy street.
For its part, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly insisted that it provides fair trials for all defendants in death penalty cases.
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