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Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in June 2014. Photo by Reuters
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Saudi Arabia has executed at least 19 people since August 4, according to Human Rights Watch. "Local news reports indicate that eight of those executed were convicted of nonviolent offenses, seven for drug smuggling and one for sorcery," the human rights organization added.

Saudi Arabia executed four men for possession of hashish on Monday and another man for murder on Tuesday, local media reported, prompting alarm from rights groups.

“Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “There is simply no excuse for Saudi Arabia’s continued use of the death penalty, especially for these types of crimes.”

Saudi Arabia's Sharia Islamic legal code gives extensive powers to individual judges to base verdicts and sentences on their own interpretation of Muslim law.

Critics say that means very different sentences can be handed out for similar crimes. Judges can also prevent defendants from having access to lawyers and can close their courtrooms to outside scrutiny.

Wael bin Saad bin Ali al-Shehri was executed in the southern Asir Province on Tuesday for shooting and killing a man in an argument, Saudi Press Agency reported, citing an Interior Ministry statement.

The four men executed for hashish possession were from Najran on the kingdom's southern border with Yemen, official media reported, naming them as Hadi bin Saleh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, Mufreh bin Jaber Zayed al-Yami, Ali bin Jaber Zayed al-Yami and Awadh bin Saleh Abdullah al-Mutlaq.

International human rights watchdog Amnesty International said those four men were two sets of brothers from the same extended family and that their confessions may have been obtained through torture.

It said the offense had taken place in 2007 and members of the family had later been warned by the government not to contact Amnesty.

Saudi Arabia denies it practices torture.

Media did not disclose the means of execution in either case. Most executions in Saudi Arabia are beheadings but last year a group of men were shot by firing squad.

Last year Saudi Arabia executed 79 people. Diplomats say a rise in the number of executions in recent years might be a result of more judges being appointed, meaning a backlog of cases is being handled more quickly.

King Abdullah ordered a series of legal reforms in 2007 that were partly aimed at making the justice system more transparent and predictable, but they have only been introduced slowly.

“The current surge in executions in Saudi Arabia is yet another dark stain on the kingdom’s human rights record,” Whitson said.