Home / Global Governance and Human Rights / Unjust Death Sentences in Saudi Arabia Shows No Hope of Justice for Dissenters

Unjust Death Sentences in Saudi Arabia Shows No Hope of Justice for Dissenters

26 May, 2023

by Sam Biden, Research Assistant

Project NEOM

In March 2023, the UN raised serious concerns over imminent executions in Saudi Arabia that are linked to Project NEOM, a futuristic smart city development backed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Those on trial, Mr. Shadly Ahmad Mahmoud Abou Taqiqa al-Huwaiti, Mr. Ibrahim Salih Ahmad Abou Khalil al-Huwaiti and Mr. Atallah Moussa Mohammed al-Huwaiti were reportedly arrested for resisting forced evictions in Neom, a large area of land in North-West Saudi Arabia. Much of Neom is currently home to over 20,000 members of the Huwaitat Tribe, the tribe whom the men belong to and who have controlled the region since before Saudi Arabia became a sovereign nation. One prominent former member of the tribe, Mr Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, was a vocal critic of the project, voicing his concerns to mainstream media and livestreaming his criticisms for millions to watch as many innocent people were forcibly evicted from their homes, resulting in him being shot by state security forces in 2020.

The death sentences of the men on trial were upheld by the Specialized Criminal Court of Appeal in January 2023, a court notorious for granting death sentences to religious dissenters. Additionally, three other members of the Howeitat tribe received severe prison terms. In response, UN experts highlighted key issues with Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism law which the men are charged under, primarily consisting of legal regulations from 2014-2017.

National Framework

The 2014 Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing (PLCTF) establishes a broad scope for terrorist offenses, encompassing acts aimed at disrupting public order, destabilizing national security, jeopardizing national unity, damaging the reputation of the state, or causing harm to public utilities and natural resources. While states have a legal right to restrict the expression of certain human rights on grounds of national security, public order or for the security of the state, these restrictions must be proportionate and necessary for the maintenance of order. In short, there must be a definitive threat to the security of the state. For the men on trial for refusing to be evicted under Project NEOM, they must have acted with extreme gravity to justify being handed the death sentence, such as setting off explosives at a Saudi government site to cause serious harm to government officials.

The definition found in the PLCTF applies not only to Saudi Arabian citizens but also to foreign nationals. Consequently, individuals who seek to change the government system, harm the country’s interests, economy, or security, or even challenge the authority or policies of the state can be prosecuted as ‘terrorists’. Further regulations issued by the Ministry of the Interior in 2014 expanded this definition, including acts such as promoting atheistic thought or questioning the fundamentals of the Islamic religion as terroristic crimes. Additionally, the regulations encompass activities that may disrupt social fabric, national cohesion, or involve sit-ins, protests, meetings or group statements. Attending conferences, seminars, or meetings inside or outside the country that target societal security or sow discord, as well as inciting hostility towards the Kingdom from countries, committees, or international organizations are all considered acts of terrorism.

Greater expansions were made in 2017 when an amendment allowed for the creation of a new provision, Article 30. This provision allows for the arrest and prosecution of individuals for acts that can be considered offensive to religion or justice when referencing both the King or Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. In essence, the addition of justice in the provision creates legal consequences for those who use their lawful rights to protest against miscarriages of justice. These could represent policy, religion, legislation, international relations or any subject that refers to actions of the state as unjustified, essentially cutting off any form of democratic reform.

Article 30 further compounds the concerns surrounding the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, allowing for the imposition of the death penalty for crimes that do not involve loss of life, typically the minimum threshold for the ‘most serious crimes’ requirement for the death penalty, a stark departure from international norms.

Use of Death Penalty

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has come under heavy scrutiny for its alarming use of the death penalty, particularly in cases related to terrorism. State executions reached a peak in 2015 with over 158 reported executions, marking the highest recorded figure since 1995. The international community was shocked by the mass execution of 47 individuals on a single day in 2016, followed by the execution of 81 individuals in March 2022, including those with psychosocial disabilities and individuals who were minors when the crimes were committed, in violation of an absolute prohibition.

Instances of unjust trials go hand in hand with Saudi state execution. The case of the “Awamiyah cell” in 2016 saw 24 individuals put on trial for their involvement in pro-democracy protests, with 14 of them sentenced to death. The individuals were charged with a long list of offenses, such as organizing a demonstration, chanting slogans, participating in anti-government gatherings and possession of weapons allegedly used in attacks against state security forces. However, the trial failed to meet the standards of due process, as defendants were reportedly tortured and denied medical aid and access to legal representation. Another set of individuals from the Shia minority have faced death sentences for their participation in pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011 and 2012. The individuals were similarly coerced into confessions, opting to retract their statements upon arriving in court, citing torture and ill-treatment as the cause of their initial statements.

The methods of execution employed in Saudi Arabia are nothing short of abhorrent, going far beyond standard forms of modern execution, such as lethal injection. Beheading or crucifixion are the main styles of execution: this method is drawn from Islamic doctrine, which further states that this method must be swift and painless. Despite this, there are many instances of the beheading taking multiple attempts, resulting in the individual essentially being chopped apart repeatedly while alive for the first few swings. Crucifixion can sometimes follow the beheading, the headless body is displayed on a crucifix in public as a form of shaming. The use of a firing squad occurs when beheading is not a viable option, but anecdotal evidence shows Saudi authorities have been hiring more trained swordsmen to allow for their traditional execution method to remain in strong practice. Finally, adulterers are buried up to their chest or knees, then they are repeatedly stoned until confirmed dead.

Terrorism in International Law

At the international level, there is no strict definition of terrorism and what it contains. Following the tragic events of 9/11, governments have increasingly adopted ambiguous and sweeping definitions of terrorism, as seen in Article 30. While this response may have been influenced partly by the need to address an unspecified threat posed by unfamiliar or foreign groups and organizations, it has often resulted in unjustly targeting individuals or groups with affiliations that go against the will of the state, even if this will is peaceful. Those who are targeted have developed far further than terrorist cells and organizations with a history of extreme violence; entities such as political opposition groups, labor unions, peaceful separatist movements, indigenous communities, religious minorities and human rights advocates are now all in the crosshair of the Saudi government.

Among the numerous UNSC resolutions that call for action against terrorism, Resolution 1566 (2004) comes closest to providing an adequate definition of terrorism. It incorporates three cumulative conditions:

  • Acts, including those targeting civilians, carried out with the intention of causing death or serious bodily harm, or the taking of hostages; and
  • Regardless of whether motivated by political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious, or similar considerations, also committed to instill fear in the general public or a group of people, intimidate a population, or coerce a government or international organization into undertaking or refraining from certain actions; and
  • Such acts being offenses falling within the scope and definition of international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism.

Per this conclusion, acts such as murder, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are the primary outcomes of terrorist acts. It must be stated that protests, criticism of the state and derogation from the traditional religious beliefs of a state do not fall within any of the conditions above.

Derogation from International Norms

Derogation from the right to life, such as allowing for the death penalty for the most serious crimes, is permissible so long as it follows certain safeguards.

Article 6 of the ICCPR provides these safeguards. First, the imposition of the death penalty is restricted to the most serious crimes. While there may not be complete unanimity on which crimes fall into this category, they generally include offenses such as murder, war crimes and genocide. Second, individuals who have been sentenced to death are granted an automatic right to appeal or seek clemency, regardless of the circumstances. Finally, certain categories of individuals are afforded specific protections against the death penalty. It may not be imposed on individuals below the age of 18, pregnant women or those who lack the ability to stand trial, such as individuals with severe intellectual disabilities. Furthermore, once a state has ratified the Second Optional Protocol aiming to abolish the death penalty, it relinquishes its right to withdraw that ratification.

The institution of derogation should not be viewed as a means to legitimize clearly unlawful methods under the guise of extreme circumstances, such as executing those who contested evictions. Furthermore, declarations of peaceful protestors as ‘terrorists’ and enemies of Saudi Arabia must be viewed as an unacceptable abuse of these derogation powers. Many of those arrested in Saudi Arabia, such as the Huwaitat tribespeople, clearly do not fall within the accepted parameters of terrorism, nor do they qualify as individuals who have committed crimes of an extreme gravity.


Overall, the case of Project NEOM exemplifies the need for greater scrutiny of the application of anti-terrorism laws, the protection of human rights and the fair administration of justice in Saudi Arabia. The case surrounding the imminent executions in Saudi Arabia raises serious concerns regarding the misuse of the death penalty and the abuse of anti-terrorism laws. The Huwaiti tribespeople, who resisted forced evictions in Neom, were unjustly labeled as terrorists and sentenced to death. The application of Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism law remains far too broad and encompasses actions that do not align with international norms.

Image: Dira Square in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Used for execution punishment handed out by sharia courts in Saudi Arabia (Source: Luke Richard Thompson/CC BY-SA 4.0)

About Sam Biden

Sam Biden is a double law graduate from Aberystwyth University whose degree focused primarily in the enforcement and protection of civil liberties. His research surrounded areas such as data protection, protection from unlawful interference, environmental law, freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, humanitarian law and natural law jurisprudence. Sam’s areas of interest include the advocating for the protection of digital liberties, ensuring of safe passage and treatment for the victims of the migration crisis and the drafting of solutions to repair corporate exploitation resulting in human rights violations and exacerbated climate damage.