The first half of 2019 has been a bloody one in Saudi Arabia, with more than one prisoner executed by the government each day on average.
The number of executions in the first six months of the year is the highest recorded in the past five years, and more than double the 55 from the same period in 2018, according to a new report by the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights.
From January until the end of June, 122 people were executed in the ultra-conservative kingdom. Among them are six minors and 58 foreign nationals, from nations including Pakistan, Yemen and Syria. Three women were among those killed, one each from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Yemen.
Fifty-one of those killed were executed for drug offenses, though ESOHR noted that in many nations the crimes would not have been among the most serious.
Among the remainder were political prisoners—including many Shiite citizens, persecuted in the Sunni-dominated nation—charged in relation to anti-government protests. Some of these charges dated back to the Arab Spring, when unrest spread to Saudi Arabia in 2011 and 2012 but was quickly crushed by the government.
On just one day—April 23—37 people were executed. The majority of these had been convicted of offenses linked to Shiite anti-government demonstrations, ESOHR explained. The new focus on political dissenters shows that the country is “experiencing a particularly brutal period of repression,” the report said.
The soaring rate of executions in the authoritarian state comes despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s promise—made in April 2018—to reduce the use of the death penalty to as low as possible.
Salman, colloquially known as MBS, is the son and heir of the elderly King Salman. Though not yet on the throne, he is widely believed to be the true power behind the king and has amassed a formidable collection of state responsibilities since seizing his position in a palace coup in 2017.
Speaking with Time, MBS said the royal family was seeking to “minimize” the use of the death penalty. “There are a few areas we can change or lower the sentence from execution to life imprisonment,” he said. “So we are working for two years through the government and also the Saudi parliament to build new laws in that area. And we believe it will take one year, maybe a little bit more, to have it finished.”
But MBS has not delivered. Since making the pledge, 221 people have been executed. While now hugely influential, he is part of a bigger problem—714 individuals have been executed since King Salman took the throne in January 2015.
The Saudi Arabian government did not immediately respond to Newsweek‘s request for comment on the latest execution figures.
Ali Adubisi, the director of ESOHR, told Newsweek there appears not to be “any signal” that MBS will follow through on his promise.
The young prince came to the fore lauded as a much-needed reformer, vowing to liberalize the nation and diversify its oil dependent economy. The Vision 2020 initiative would, he told the world, open Saudi Arabia to global commerce, offer new freedoms to its citizens and phase out some of the more archaic elements of Saudi society.
But many of his actions have run contrary to the project. He led Saudi Arabia into a devastating war in Yemen, was linked to the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khasohggi, arrested and extorted billions from allegedly corrupt Saudi business people, and cracked down on human rights, pro-democracy and Shiite activists.
Regardless, world leaders have largely remained at his back. President Donald Trump in particular has lauded his “friend” MBS, who he said last month is doing a “fantastic job.” Saudi Arabia’s deep pockets, huge oil reserves and strategic value against an aggressive Iran prompt many Western leaders to overlook the human rights transgressions of the House of Saud.
Indeed, the next G20 summit—in November 2020—is scheduled to be held in Riyadh. It seems that whatever MBS and his royal relatives do, the key players in the international community are unwilling to ostracize them.
For domestic human rights groups, this support sends a clear message. “One of the main difficulties they face is the support for MBS from the international community, especially from the U.S. and the U.K.,” Adubisi explained. “They are clearly supporting MBS despite all these crises in human rights.”
For Adubisi, MBS is the key driver of Saudi Arabia’s expansion of capital punishment. Only by increasing pressure on the crown prince can the international community curtail executions.
The Trump administration in particular is constantly covering for MBS, Adubisi suggested. But it is not only the president, his senior staff including Advisor to the President Jared Kusher, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are all close with MBS.
A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek it had urged the Saudi Arabian government, and all other governments, “to ensure fair trial guarantees, freedom from arbitrary and extrajudicial detention, transparency, and rule of law.”
The spokesperson said the department had also “spoken out publicly about our concerns, including in the Human Rights and International Religious Freedom reports, and continue to do so in our private diplomatic engagements as well.”
ESOHR noted its “serious concerns about the extent to which the Saudi government will expand capital punishment this year.” If the current execution rate is maintained, there will be 244 executions by the end of 2019.
“Despite the lack of transparency in the Saudi government’s use of detainees and sentences, ESOHR has documented 23 cases current pending death sentences, including those of at least three children,” the organization said.
“Several of them have been denied fair trial conditions, and in many cases detainees facing the death sentence have been tortured and prevented from obtaining access to legal counsel.”
This article has been updated to include comments from the State Department.