Top United Nations officials have expressed deep dismay and regret at the executions by Saudi Arabia of 47 people, including the cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, and have called on the country's authorities to commute all death sentences.
"Sheik al-Nimr and a number of the other prisoners executed had been convicted following trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson said in a statement, also deploring violence by demonstrators against the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
"The Secretary-General reiterates his strong stance against the death penalty," it added, noting that Mr Ban had raised the case of Sheikh al-Nimr with Saudi leaders on a number of occasions.
"He points to the growing movement in the international community for the abolition of capital punishment and urges Saudi Arabia to commute all death sentences imposed in the Kingdom," the statement noted.
Mr Ban called for calm and restraint in reaction to the execution of Sheikh Nimr and urged all regional leaders to work to avoid exacerbating sectarian tensions.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, emphasised the strict requirements for carrying out the death sentence in those countries that still permitted it, including only for the most serious crimes, with a fair trial, full transparency, and the exclusion of confessions obtained under torture, when application of the death penalty is "unconscionable."
He said he was extremely concerned about the recent sharp increase in executions in Saudi Arabia, with at least 157 people put to death in 2015, compared to 90 executed in 2014, and lower numbers in previous years. “Now we see almost one-third of the 2015 total executed in a single day”, he emphasised in a statement issued on 3 January. “That is a very disturbing development indeed, particularly as some of those sentenced to death were accused of non-violent crimes."
"Generally, I remain very concerned over whether strict due process guarantees, including the right to an effective defence, were met in all cases,” he added, urging the Government to impose a moratorium on all executions and to work with the UN and other partners on alternative strategies to combat terrorism.
Deploring the execution of Sheikh Al-Nimr and any other individual who had not committed a crime viewed “as most serious” under international human rights law, Mr Zeid stressed that the death penalty may only be imposed, in countries that still permit it, if a strict set of substantive and procedural requirements are met.
“The category of 'most serious crimes,' for which the death penalty is still permissible, has been consistently interpreted by human rights mechanisms as being restricted to murder and other forms of intentional killing," he added, noting that he wrote to the Saudi government on Sheikh Al-Nimr's death sentence last year.
"In addition, the death penalty may only be carried out if there has been stringent respect of due process and fair trial guarantees, and full transparency throughout the process. Convictions cannot be based on confessions obtained under torture and ill-treatment, or trial proceedings that fall short of international standards,” he went on to note.
"The application of the death penalty in these circumstances is unconscionable, as any miscarriage of justice as a result of capital punishment cannot be undone, and no justice system is totally free from human error,” Mr Zeid concluded.
Since 2007, the UN General Assembly has adopted a series of resolutions calling on States that retain the death penalty to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty altogether.
* United Nations http://www.un.org/en/index.html