Public executions in Saudi Arabia - a key Western ally which is due to host the G20 summit next year - represent multiple breaches of international law, according to a hard-hitting study published today by a global legal body. Among the issues raised by the International Bar Association is the 'arbitrary effect' of Saudi Arabia's imposition of the sharia code. 

So far this year, the Saudi authorities have carried out at least 134 executions, the International Bar Association's Human Right Institute states. Of these, 55 were of non-violent drug offenders and 37 were political activists killed en masse on 23 April 2019 following lengthy periods of detention, torture, and 'grossly unfair' trials.

Should executions continue at this rate, the 2019 death toll will far exceed all previous recorded totals, the report's author, Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws (Helena Kennedy QC), notes.

The report catalogues numerous ways in which the Saudi penal code contravenes international law. For example, at least six of the 37 individuals executed in April were under 18 at the time of their alleged offences. 

International conventions Saudi Arabia has pledged to respect include the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention Against Torture and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The declaration outlaws the 'arbitrary' definition of life, which, the report states, is not to simply be equated with 'against the law', but 'must be interpreted more broadly to include elements of inappropriateness, injustice, lack of predictability and due process of law, as well as elements of unreasonableness, lack of necessity and disproportionality'.

All these are features of the Saudi justice system, the report states. The country prescribes the death penalty for a wide range of crimes, including 'terrorism' which can encompass any opposition to the government. Meanwhile the circumstances in which the death penalty must or may be imposed are often unclear, as 'much depends on the interpretation of imprecise passages of the Quran, the hadith or fatwas, and jurists’ approach to such interpretation appears to vary considerably'.

'This in itself is problematic, since it renders the rules and principles governing the imposition of the death penalty volatile and uncertain,' the report states.

The IBA Human Rights Institute calls on Saudi Arabia to impose a moratorium on executions 'with a view to ultimately abolishing the death penalty'. Meanwhile the kingdom should publish accurate information about persons on death row and allow an international fact-finding mission by an independent and politically neutral organisation to investigate further. 'The mission must be given immediate and unfettered access, as an absolute minimum, to all those who are on death row awaiting execution.'

In the event of failure to comply, members of the G20 should refuse to participate in the summit due to be held in Riyadh in November next year. 'Otherwise, these countries and the EU will risk normalising and even tacitly legitimising the human rights abuses being perpetrated by the Saudi regime,' the report states.