Saudi Arabia carried out at least 157 executions in 2015, with beheadings reaching their highest level in the kingdom in two decades, according to several advocacy groups that monitor the death penalty worldwide.
Coinciding with the rise in executions is the number of people executed for non-lethal offenses that judges have wide discretion to rule on, particularly for drug-related crimes.
Rights group Amnesty International said in November that at least 63 people had been executed since the start of the year for drug-related offenses. That figure made for at least 40 per cent of the total number of executions in 2015, compared to less than four percent for drug-related executions in 2010. Amnesty said Saudi Arabia had exceeded its highest level of executions since 1995, when 192 executions were recorded.
But while some crimes, such as premeditated murder, may carry fixed punishments under Saudi Arabia's interpretation of the Islamic law, or Shariah, drug-related offenses are considered "ta'zir", meaning neither the crime nor the punishment is defined in Islam.
Discretionary judgments for "ta'zir" crimes have led to arbitrary rulings with contentious outcomes.
In a lengthy report issued in August, Amnesty International noted the case of Lafi al-Shammari, a Saudi national with no previous criminal record who was executed in mid-2015 for drug trafficking. The person arrested with him and charged with the same offenses received a 10-year prison sentence, despite having prior arrests related to drug trafficking.
Human Rights Watch found that of the first 100 prisoners executed in 2015, 56 had been based on judicial discretion and not for crimes for which Islamic law mandates a specific death penalty punishment.
Shariah scholars hold vastly different views on the application of the death penalty, particularly for cases of "ta'zir."
Delphine Lourtau, research director at Cornell Law School's Death Penalty Worldwide, adds that there are Shariah law experts "whose views are that procedural safeguards surrounding capital punishment are so stringent that they make death penalty almost virtually impossible."
She says in Saudi Arabia, defendants are not provided defense lawyers and in numerous cases of South Asians arrested for drug trafficking, they are not provided translators in court hearings. She said there are also questions "over the degree of influence the executive has on trial outcomes" when it comes to cases where Shiite activists are sentenced to death.
Emory Law professor and Shariah scholar Abdullahi An-Naim said because there is an "inherent infallibility in court systems," no judicial system can claim to enforce an immutable, infallible form of Shariah.