DPRU Q&As: Duaa Dhainy, researcher on human rights in Saudi Arabia
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In the latest of the DPRU's Q&A series with death penalty experts from around the world, Duaa Dhainy, a researcher and caseworker at the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, tells DPRU Research Officer Jocelyn Hutton about her work advocating for foreign nationals on death row in Saudi Arabia.
Can you tell me a bit about ESOHR's work in relation to the death penalty?
The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) has been working on death penalty cases since its inception. ESOHR monitors executions carried out by the state, through official data published by the Saudi Ministry of Interior, in addition to other sources. We also monitor the cases of individuals facing the death penalty. These cases are often documented through community sources, such as family members and social media. We advocate for individuals with the relevant authorities, including diplomatic bodies, and cases are then submitted to United Nations bodies. We investigate not only sentences and executions, but also the violations that accompany death sentences, such as fairness of trials and torture allegations.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Dealing with death penalty cases is very difficult because you are dealing with issues related to life and death. It becomes even more difficult when you know the additional human rights violations that the individual has been subjected to in the course of the investigation and trial, especially where the person is facing an arbitrary punishment that may end their life. The most difficult part, for me, is supporting the families of individuals in cases which end with the opposite of what we had been hoping for, that is, with their execution.
Can you tell us about a particular foreign national case that you have dealt with?
We have many cases that show a pattern of violations against foreign national migrant workers. For example, in the case of a Jordanian national, Hussein Abu al-Khair, we closely monitored, through his family, the violations that he was being subjected to since the moment of his arrest.
Hussein was working in Saudi Arabia as a driver to support his family and eight children back home, when he was arrested in May 2014 on suspicion of drug smuggling. He was subjected to forced disappearance, with his family not notified of his arrest or whereabouts or informed of his court date. A confession was extracted only after he was extensively tortured. He was not given access to a lawyer, despite his Vienna Convention rights,[i] and was sentenced to death with no representation. His family have also suffered since the moment Hussein was arrested, losing not only the income that his work provided for them, but also their husband and father.
In September 2015, UN Special Rapporteurs began monitoring Hussein’s case and wrote to the government of Saudi Arabia asking for his rights to be upheld. Eight months later, the government responded to the letter, stating that the laws already in place ensure that all detainees have access to their rights and that Hussein had obtained his right to a fair trial. At present, Saudi Arabia has said that it has suspended the execution of death sentences in drug cases, yet many executions continue to take place. Hussein remains in prison eight years later, waiting for a miracle in his case.
Why do you think foreign nationals are at special risk of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia?
The Saudi Arabian judicial system is characterized by discriminatory policies that affect the most vulnerable groups and expose them to widespread human rights violations. In April 2022, ESOHR found that the number of foreigners executed by Saudi Arabia between 2015-2021 constituted about 40% of global executions during that time. In addition to the torture and ill-treatment endemic in the criminal justice system, foreigners are subjected to exceptional violations. For example, they are often denied access to interpreters, legal representatives and the right to see to their families. Consequently, migrant workers, who do not have advantages such as speaking Arabic, access to a lawyer or local support networks, are more vulnerable to discriminatory sentences.
How do you tend to hear of death sentences, and at which stage in the justice process?
It depends on the case. Sometimes we are informed of a case by a family member – this is usually after a death sentence has been passed, meaning no one was able to help the accused avoid a death sentence at the investigation or trial stages. However, there have also been a lot of cases in which we did not know that the accused had even been sentenced to death until their execution was announced. This makes it very difficult for us to advocate for clients. Saudi Arabia does not tell most families when it will implement the punishment and does not give them the right to say goodbye. Sometimes families only know that their relative has been executed when it is announced by the media.
Do you think the police, prison authorities or embassies provide foreign nationals with their rights to special protection and assistance?
In Saudi Arabia, there is a clear deficiency in terms of the work of consulates and embassies to help their nationals. In the cases we have observed, the relevant embassy did not communicate with the accused at all. Also, foreigners’ families in their home country are not guided by their local authorities on how to help support their family member. We have also noticed a lack of cooperation by embassies after executions have been carried out to help family members obtain the victim’s body in order to conduct a burial. This is a painful part of the families’ suffering. Embassies and consulates must improve their cooperation in order to help their nationals working abroad, especially where they are accused of a crime or face a sentence. Bilateral treaties should be worked out between home and host countries for migrant workers to better protect their rights.
What can ESOHR do to help prevent vulnerable people from receiving the death penalty in Saudi Arabia?
ESOHR has been trying for some time to help the most vulnerable in Saudi Arabia, especially foreign workers. There is a lack of transparency in the Saudi government's handling of death penalty cases, which makes it difficult for us, and other rights organizations, to access information and support those accused. Recently, ESOHR has been working with organizations in several countries to try and assist foreign workers and to raise awareness of our work in order to help prisoners and their families to reach us. We work on a case-by-case basis to access and document information, file complaints, communicate with diplomats or parliamentarians, and arrange media coverage and, in some cases, legal assistance.
What do you think is the most effective way to lobby the Saudi government against the use of the death penalty?
In the case of Saudi Arabia, we cannot choose one method over another, we have to use all methods available. It depends on the type of case, but to a large extent the death penalty in Saudi Arabia is a political decision, and therefore we find that the numbers rise and fall according to the political mood. For ESOHR, raising awareness about Saudi Arabia's violation of its own obligations is one of the most prominent ways we can advocate against the use of the death penalty, alongside exerting global pressure and diplomatic means.
Duaa Dhainy is a researcher from Lebanon, specialising in human rights. She works at the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights. ESOHR are experts on human rights in Saudi Arabia, and monitor and report on a vast number of cases of those sentenced to death and executed.
[i] The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963 is the key treaty governing the exercise of consular assistance, permitting communication and access between foreign nationals and the consular officials of home states, who may provide various forms of assistance such as arranging legal representation. For further details on the importance of the VCCR for foreign nationals, see this DPRU Blog post.