The lucrative business of pardoning death row prisoners in Saudi Arabia

People participate in a fundraiser aimed at raising money to purchase a pardon for someone sentenced to death (screengrab of a YouTube video posted on March 18, 2017).
People participate in a fundraiser aimed at raising money to purchase a pardon for someone sentenced to death (screengrab of a YouTube video posted on March 18, 2017).


Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world. However, in some cases, inmates facing the death penalty are spared if the victim’s family agrees to pardon their crimes… in exchange for a large sum of money. This practice, known as “diya”, has become a dirty, if lucrative, business.

“Diya” is an Islamic concept that essentially equates to “a blood price”, or, the amount of money that a murderer (or his family) must pay the family of the victim in order to obtain a pardon.

This video, which was filmed by a passerby on Sunday, March 26, shows an inmate who is on the verge of being beheaded in a public square in Taëf, a town located in western Saudi Arabia.

Suddenly, however, a wave of excitement goes through the crowd: the execution has been pushed back because the family of the victim just agreed to negotiate a pardon for the condemned man. The victim’s family can make this decision up until the very last second, sometimes waiting until then to announce a decision that was made much earlier.

The execution is put off for three months, which is the amount of time that his family has to raise the sum demanded by the victim’s family. That’s when the mediators step in.

Mohammad Alsaeedi lives in Qatif, in eastern Saudi Arabia. He has attended public executions before and is a community activist for human rights.

“Mediators encourage the families to ask for astronomical sums of money”

When a family is seeking a pardon for a son who has been convicted of murdering someone, they start by speaking to a mediator. Mediators are usually public figures, a religious leader or sometimes a local emir.

The mediator’s first task is to convince the victim's family to accept the idea of a pardon. Once the victim’s family has declared that they are open to the idea, the negotiations with the killer’s family start.

Mediators tend to encourage the victims' families to ask for astronomical sums of money — sometimes as much as 60 million rials [about 15 million euros]. They have a vested interest in doing so, as they get a cut of this money.

In the large majority of cases, the family of the convicted person doesn’t have the means to pay that much, so the mediator helps them to launch a fundraising campaign. All of the money raised is funnelled into a bank account that is opened by the local administration with the authorisation of the interior minister.

The mediators are responsible for campaigning for donations from rich businessmen and the most influential tribes in the region.

Fundraising campaigns are also shared widely on social media under the hashtag #اعتق رقبة (save a life).

This poster is for a campaign aiming to raise 60 million rials [15 million euros] to spare a man sentenced to death for having killed someone during a fight.

The campaign is calling on social media users to donate 15 million rials [equivalent to 3.7 million euros]. This poster includes verses from the Koran and hadiths [one of various reports describing the words or actions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad] that praise the virtues of pardoning. However, it also includes the number of the bank account set up to receive donations. Source: Twitter.

It’s also common for tribes to organise ceremonies and charity dinners to convince the region’s wealthiest and most influential people to donate to the campaign.

This video, which was posted on March 18, 2017, shows a fundraising ceremony organised by a tribe to raise money to buy the pardon of a man accused of killing his brother-in-law during a fight. The programme for the event included tea, traditional dances and, of course, the handing over of cheques.

Our Observers think that these practices corrupt the principle of a “pardon”.

Saudi law forbids people from promoting fundraising campaigns both in traditional media and on social media. However, Twitter is full of this kind of advertising.

Moreover, a royal decree from 2011 fixes the diya at 400,000 rials [equivalent to about 100,000 euros]. But very few families follow this guideline [in Saudi Arabia, royal decrees aren’t obligatory].

For the past few years, it’s like there’s been a morbid competition to ask for higher and higher diyas. It’s become a business. Many families aren’t thinking about the virtues of Islam when they offer to pardon someone, they are thinking about the huge amount of money that they could get by doing so.

"Authorities should fix a ceiling for the diya"

The people who are responsible for this situation are the mediators. They are the ones who push families to ask for outrageous sums because they earn a commission from it. They are opportunists who make fortunes off the backs of dead people. Saudi authorities should closely monitor and control this practice. They should start by fixing a ceiling for the diya.

The worst is that once a murderer has been pardoned, he is allowed to leave prison after a few months or even weeks. He ends up serving an extremely light sentence for his crime. I think that creates a situation of rampant impunity for those who can pay.

However, in November 2016, the Saudi Supreme Court did rule that when people convicted of murder are pardoned, judges should commute their sentence to prison terms of at least five years.

"A pardon doesn’t mean the crime should go unpunished"

In an opinion piece published on the news site Al Riyadh, Abderrahmane Allahem, a lawyer who specialises in human rights in Saudi Arabia, says that five years isn’t enough for a convicted murderer.

I’m not against the idea of pardons. However, in the case of a death penalty pardon, the court should commute the murderer’s sentence to at least 25 years in prison. A pardon doesn’t mean the crime should go unpunished. (…)

What's more, the fact that a murderer can be freed so quickly could be a danger for society. Failing to punish a murderer is like depreciating the value of human life.

For the past few months, there have been an increasing number of appeals from lawyers, intellectuals and religious leaders for the government to ban “blood negotiators”. For the time being, that has yet to happen.