UNITED NATIONS - The UN human rights office expressed alarm Friday at the significant increase in Saudi Arabia’s use of capital punishment in the past year. According to the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the number of executions in the country almost tripled last year compared with 2010. “We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to respect international standards guaranteeing due process and the protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, to progressively restrict the use of the death penalty and to reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed,” OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva, according to a press release issued at UN Headquarter in New York.

“What is even more worrying is that court proceedings often reportedly fall far short of international fair trial standards, and the use of torture as a means to obtain confessions appears to be rampant,” Colville added.

Saudi Arabia applies the death penalty for a wide range of offences, including the charge of sorcery and witchcraft, for which a woman was executed last month, the press release said.

OHCHR also expressed grave concern at the recent sentencing of six men convicted on charges of highway robbery. The men were condemned to “cross amputation” – a form of punishment which involves the amputation of the men’s right hands and left feet.

“We call on the authorities to halt the use of such cruel, inhuman, degrading punishment,” Colville continued, noting that as a party to the Convention against Torture, Saudi Arabia is “bound by the absolute prohibition” against the use of torture and other forms of cruel punishment.

Last October, OHCHR voiced deep distress over the execution of 10 men who were publicly beheaded in Riyadh, while underscoring that about 140 of the 193 UN Member States are now believed to have either abolished the death penalty or introduced a moratorium.