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Executions Could Strain Syrian-Saudi Relations

The recent executions of three Syrians convicted of drug trafficking in Saudi Arabia may mark a downturn in the already frosty relationship between the two countries.

Syrian national Ibrahim al-Jarkh was beheaded on April 25, eight days after the execution of two other men, Feras al-Aghbar and Feras al-Maktabi. All three were executed in Tabuk in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

Dozens of people with relatives detained in Saudi Arabia staged protests in Damascus following the executions. At protests outside the Saudi embassy and Syrian interior ministry, participants held signs aloft calling on President Bashar al-Assad to “save our families and brothers from Saudi Arabia’s unpredictable verdicts.”

State-run television reported the demonstration in some detail, and other media gave broad coverage to news of the executions.

As a local human rights activist pointed out, "It's well known that no demonstrations are allowed in Syria unless they have a green light from the authorities. This appears to be a move against the Saudi government.”

The activist said political tensions over the executions could further complicate the cases of Syrian prisoners currently held in Saudi Arabia.

Several Syrian media outlets last week reported that as many as 1,200 Syrian nationals were being held in Saudi prisons, and 300 of them were awaiting execution.

There are no official statistics on this from either government, and these figures could not be independently verified.

The Syrian embassy in Riyadh sent a letter to the Saudi foreign ministry condemning the executions.

Under the Saudis’ strict interpretation of Islamic law, convicted drug traffickers are liable to be executed. But a source in the Syria’s Riyadh embassy told the pro-government website Syria News that the Saudis normally hand down seven-year sentences for the offence, and release prisoners early if they learn the Koran.

The embassy source also said that Syrian diplomats had not been notified about the two earlier executions, which took place on April 17.

The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper took a similarly critical line, questioning whether Syrian nationals imprisoned in the kingdom received fair and independent trials, “particularly in view of the Saudis’ hostile political attitude toward Syria".

Relations have soured in recent months over the role Damascus plays in Lebanon, which has not elected a president since November due to strong opposition from Syrian-backed parties in parliament.

In a press conference earlier this week, Saudi justice minister Abdullah al-Sheikh denied that politics played any role when capital punishment was used on convicted Syrians.

Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported on April 27 that Tehran – an ally of Damascus – was prepared to “help Syria and Saudi Arabia resolve their dispute”.

A Syrian writer and intellectual noted that while the Saudis carried out many executions, media and human rights groups were politicising the recent cases because of the strained relationship between the countries.

"The hostility has moved from the two regimes to the two people. That’s crazy," he said.

Meanwhile, the human rights activist, who opposes the death penalty, said the Syrian government was “using human rights for political reasons”.

She noted that several prisoners were executed in Syria last year after being convicted in special military court, in which no attorneys are present.

Syria executed at least seven prisoners in 2007, according to Amnesty International.

Amnesty says Saudi Arabia executed at least 143 prisoners in 2007, giving it the highest number of executions per capita of any country.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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