On death row in Saudi Arabia: forgotten Pakistani prisoners
Saudi Arabia executes more Pakistanis than any other nationality, but Pakistan continues to fail its citizens in Saudi prisons.
Mohammed Imran, a Pakistani migrant who had been in a Saudi prison for the past eight years, was executed last month.
Imran had travelled to Saudi Arabia to start a new job and was arrested on arrival at the airport for drug-related charges, a crime that is punished by death in the country. Imran was then taken to a fairly crowded, sand-colored facility after being put on trial on Arabic - a language he did not speak - and without access to an attorney. Imran spent the rest of his days in the facility.
He was just one of the close to 3,400 Pakistani jailed in Saudi Arabia - making Pakistanis the largest number of expatriates in Saudi prisons, according to figures by Pakistan’s foreign ministry,
Saudi Arabia has also executed more Pakistanis than any other foreign nationals - more than 70 citizens of Pakistan have been executed since October 2014 while hundreds, including an 80 year old woman, are currently on a death sentence.
However, in February of this year, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman ordered, during his visit to Pakistan, the immediate release of 2,107 Pakistanis incarcerated in Saudi jails .
And although the minister for overseas Pakistanis made a public announcement in August that 1,350 Pakistani prisoners had been repatriated, no details about these prisoners nor the timeline of their arrival was shared.
“Despite being a close ally, KSA executes more Pakistanis than any other nationality. Not only has it not returned the promised 2,107 prisoners to Pakistan but it has also started to execute them. The Pakistani government must pursue and expedite the release of these people and ensure their safe return” says Sarah Belal, executive director, of Justice Project Pakistan in a statement to the press, Justice Project Pakistan is a nonprofit human rights law firm that provides pro bono legal advice and investigative services to the most vulnerable of Pakistani prisoners, at home and abroad.
More than a million Pakistanis live in Saudi Arabia, according to Global Media Insight, and make up the kingdom’s third largest expatriate community. And for those, like Imran, who have have been arrested, the Saudi criminal justice system seldom offers a fair trial.
Saudi Arabia currently has one of the highest execution rates in the world - and the majority executed are foreigners on drug-related charges. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, stated in an interview with Time Magazine that the country’s justice system’s approach to executions might eventually see progressive changes, the death penalty will continue to exist for some crimes but will be removed for others.
While most countries whose citizens make up a significant portion of the expatriate population have thorough consular protection policies and prison transfer agreements with Saudi Arabia, several reports by Justice Project Pakistan show the lack of efforts by Pakistani authorities to protect its migrant workers in Saudi Arabian jails.
The Philippine government, for example, regularly intervenes on behalf of its overseas workers. According to a 2011 government inquiry on behalf of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs, there was “no doubt” that the country’s diplomatic staff actively monitored developments in death-row cases involving Philippine citizens in Gulf countries.
And in 2014, Sri Lanka signed a labor deal with Saudi Arabia seeking to protect the rights of 500,000 of its citizens working there. The move was made after a Sri Lankan maid was beheaded in the kingdom. At the moment, the Sri Lankan embassy has a 24-hour hotline where distressed workers can call for help.
A 2018 report titled ‘Caught in the Web’, by Justice Project Pakistan and Human Rights Watch stressed the importance and effectiveness of consular protection policies and prison transfer agreements in efforts to protect migrant rights.
‘Caught in the Web’ explored 19 different cases that highlighted the many ways that Pakistani authorities in the kingdom has been failing their citizens in prisons.
In an interview with openDemocracy, Ahmad Khan (name changed), the brother of a detained Pakistani prisoner in Saudi Arabia recalls that he did not find out about the arrest of his brother till three weeks had passed.
“He was visiting on holiday and then flew back to Jeddah. We didn’t hear from him after he landed and when we tried to contact the airline, the airports, and even the consulate, it was a waste,” he states. “Finally, my brother managed to call from a phone that someone in prison let him use. If he hadn’t been able to do that, there would have been no way to know what happened to him.”
Khan’s brother was arrested in 2014, also, for drug-related charges and is on death row. According to his Khan, his brother has not been provided a lawyer nor received any assistance from the Pakistani consulate.
Saudi Arabia does not provide public defender services or state support to those who cannot afford private lawyers. In the 19 cases researched in “Caught in the Web” , only one defendant had access to a lawyer.
Last year, during a panel discussion at the launch of the report, Pakistani Senator Sehar Kamran, called for the establishment of a community welfare fund to provide legal help to detained Pakistanis and reform in the “sheer indifference” displayed by the Pakistani embassy and consulate in Saudi Arabia.
A spokesperson for the Pakistani consulate in Jeddah, in an interview with openDemocracy, has denied any shortcomings in its system and states that all Pakistanis arrested in Saudi Arabia are provided the assistance they need.
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