updated 10/14/2008 5:41:52 PM ET 2008-10-14T21:41:52

Saudi Arabia beheaded two men Tuesday, the latest state-sanctioned killings in a country where use of the death penalty has risen sharply in recent years and a disproportionate number of those executed are foreigners, a rights group said.

Venancio Ladion, from the Philippines, was beheaded for murdering a Saudi man in Mecca by suffocating him and stabbing him in the neck with a pen. Also put to death was Saudi Fahd al-Shadoukhey for committing theft and rape while under the influence of alcohol.

The executions were announced by the Saudi Interior Ministry. They bring the total number of people beheaded in the kingdom this year to 72, according to an Associated Press count.

Last year, the number of executions in Saudi Arabia jumped more than four-fold, with 158 people killed compared with 39 the previous year, rights group Amnesty International said in a report.

Amnesty condemned the kingdom's disproportionate execution of foreigners and defendants younger than 18 at the time of their crimes. It said many trials that ordered capital punishment failed to meet international standards for fairness.

Under Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, people convicted of murder, drug trafficking, rape and armed robbery can be executed. It has routinely been criticized by rights groups for its stand on capital punishment and for ignoring a U.N. call last year for a moratorium on executions.

Secrecy hides reasons for increase
Lamri Chirouf, a researcher who worked on the report, said it is difficult to know the reasons for the increase because of the secrecy of Saudi Arabia's judicial system.

But he pointed to several factors that he said were responsible for making Saudi Arabia one of the few countries to use capital punishment so extensively — the scope of capital crimes is wide, judges have no limits on their discretion to impose the death penalty, and capital cases are summary and secretive.

"All these three factors put together make it very easy to pass the death sentence and carry it out," he said.

Almost half of the 1,800 executions recorded by Amnesty over the last 28 years were of foreigners, it said. Most of them were migrant workers from poor and developing countries in Africa and Asia. Often, those defendants are unable to follow court proceedings in Arabic and have no legal assistance, the report said.

That trend has remained constant over that period, Chirouf said. The report found that foreigners are more vulnerable in capital cases in part because they don't have relatives or anyone else in the country to turn to for help and often lack the language skills to understand proceedings.

It said they also lack the social connections and wealth needed to pay compensation to their victims' families, which in Saudi Arabia can help win a pardon.

Connections save some
"The death penalty is carried out disproportionately and discriminately on national or ethnic grounds against poor foreign workers and against Saudi Arabian nationals who lack the family or other connections that, fortunately, help others to be saved from execution," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty's Middle East director.

Saudi Arabia is home to 5.6 million foreign workers employed in sectors such as oil, business and engineering. The Saudi population is 22 million.

Amnesty said reforms to what it described as a largely secret and summary criminal justice system have failed to deliver needed changes.

"We had hoped that the much-heralded human rights initiatives introduced by the Saudi Arabian authorities in recent years would bring an end to — or at least a significant reduction in — the use of the death penalty," said Smart.

"Yet, in fact, we have witnessed a sharp rise in executions of prisoners sentenced in largely secret and unfair trials, making the need for a moratorium more urgent than ever," he said.

Particularly troubling, the group said, is that Saudi law does not disqualify confessions obtained by torture or other illegal means.

The Amnesty report also said female defendants were "at the mercy of an all-male judiciary that enforces rules, customs and traditions that discriminate against women as human beings in general."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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