On 25th of April, the Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court announced that it has abolished flogging as a legal punishment. The Court declared that human rights advances are part of reforms implemented and pushed by King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler. Reportedly, this form of corporal punishment will be replaced with prison sentences, fines or combinations of both.
The abolition of flogging and the Supreme Courts intention to ‘’bring the Kingdom into the line with international human rights norms against corporal punishment’’ was introduced just few days after the death of one of the leading Saudi human rights activists Abdullah al-Hamid, who suffered from stroke while in custody. He was sentenced to prison in March 2013, as a founding member of the Civil and Political Rights Association and convicted on multiple charges including breaking allegiance to the Saudi ruler, inciting disorder and seeking to disrupt state security.
According to a document released by Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court, the Kingdom is ending flogging as a form of punishment. The decision to abolish this type of corporal punishment was made by the General Commission for Supreme Court which declared that flogging will be replaced by prison, monetary fines or both.
Saudi Arabia applies Islamic or Sharia law as its national law. According to the World Report for 2019 released by the Human Rights Watch for 2019 ‘’There is no formal penal code, but the government has passed some laws and regulations that subject some certain broadly-defined offenses to criminal penalties. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly worded regulations, however, judges and prosecutors can convict people on a wide range of offense under broad catch-all charges’’. Consequently, without a codified system of law, courts in Saudi Arabia could order flogging and apply it as a punishment for variety crimes such as breach of peace, murder, extramarital sex and public intoxication. Judges use their own interpretation of religious texts making up the Sharia or Islamic law and coming up with their own sentences. The decision to ban flogging came as a result of pressure and scrutiny put by the international community and human rights organizations after conviction of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, arrested for the first time in 2012 and sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. He was re-sentenced in 2014 for blogging about free speech and ‘’insulting Islam’’ to 10 years in prison and 1.000 lashes. As a result of this type of punishment Badawi nearly died; however, he is still serving his prison term.
According to Awwad Alwwad, the President of Saudi’s Human Rights Commission ‘’This reform is momentous step forward in Saudi Arabia’s human rights agenda, and merely one of many recent reforms in the Kingdom’’. The abolition of flogging was also welcomed by human rights organizations such as the Human Rights Watch, which stated that this change is welcome; however, it should have happened years ago and that there is nothing now standing in the way of Saudi Arabia to reform its unfair judicial system.
According to human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Reprieve, Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go since other forms of capital and corporal punishments, such as beheading for committed murder or amputation for robbery, still have not been abolished and outlawed. According to the Global Report on Death Sentences and Executions released by Amnesty International ‘’In Saudi Arabia, 184 executions , of six women and 178 men, were carried out; this was the highest number of executions recorded by Amnesty International in one year in the country. Eighty-four of the executions were for drug-related offences; 55 for murder; 37 for terrorism-related offences; five for rape; two for beating and rape; and one for armed robbery and rape. Of the 184 people executed in 2019, 88 were Saudi Arabian nationals. The others, a majority of 52%, were foreign nationals from the following countries: Afghanistan (1); Ethiopia (1); Philippines (1); Somalia (1); Turkey (1); Bahrain (2); India (2); Chad (3); Jordan (5); Nigeria (5); Egypt (6); Syria (10); Yemen (20); Pakistan (35); and three people whose nationality was not known.’’ Similarly, the Human Rights Watch reported that ‘’detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest’’.
The fact that Saudi Arabia still has a long path to follow when it comes to implementation of international human rights standards in its national laws was conferment by a London-based Saudi opposition leader and activists Aliaa Abutayah in an interview with Al-Jazeera. Abutayah told Al-Jazeera that ‘’If the Saudi government is serious about legal reform, they should start by releasing all of the political and human rights prisoners they have been holding in their prisons for years.’’ She added that the Saudi government should also abolish the capital punishment, including the practice of executing juveniles.