Iran and Saudi Arabia: Laws that Treat Children as Adults

Iran is a state party to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child,while Saudi Arabia is a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 11 Despite this, judges in both Iran and Saudi Arabia can impose the death penalty in capital cases if the defendant has attained his or her majority (a concept based on puberty). In some cases these determinations are made at the time of trial, rather than at the time of the offense.

In 2007 Iran executed at least 317 people,12 including eight juvenile offenders; Saudi Arabia executed at least 158 people, including at least two juvenile offenders.13 At the time of writing Iran is known to have executed at least six juvenile offenders in 2008, and over 130 other juvenile offenders are under sentence of death.14

Iranian Legislation and Practice

Iran retains the death penalty for a large number of offenses, among them cursing the Prophet, certain drug offenses, murder, and certain hadd crimes, including adultery, incest, rape, fornication, drinking alcohol, “sodomy,” same-sex sexual conduct between men without penetration, lesbianism, “being at enmity with God” (mohareb), and “corruption on earth” (mofsed fil arz).15

Article 49 of the Islamic Penal Code exempts children from criminal responsibility. However, the article’s accompanying note defines a child as someone who has not reached the age of puberty (bulugh) as stipulated by the Sharia and as specified in the 1991 Civil Code as 15 lunar years for boys and 9 lunar years for girls.16

The majority of juvenile executions in Iran are for hadd crimes or for intentional murder. Intentional murder, which includes “cases where the murderer intentionally makes an action that is inherently lethal, even if he does not intend to kill the victim,” is considered to be a crime punishable by retribution in kind (qisas-e-nafs).17 While the judiciary is responsible for carrying out the trial and implementing the sentence in qisas cases, Iranian law treats these cases as private disputes between two civil parties, where the state facilitates the resolution of the dispute. The victim’s survivors retain the right to claim retribution in kind, to pardon the killer, or to accept compensation in exchange for giving up the right to claim retribution.

In July 2006 the Iranian parliament gave an initial reading to a draft Juvenile Crimes Investigation Act that officials have said would end executions for juvenile offenders, but which actually still leaves judges with discretion to sentence juvenile offenders to death. Article 31(3) of the proposed law would allow but not require judges to reduce a sentence of death or life imprisonment against juvenile defendants ages 15 to 18 to a term of imprisonment ranging from two to eight years in a juvenile correctional facility. In addition, article 33 of the proposed legislation makes clear that reduction of sentences in qisas and hadd crimes shall be applied only when the judge determines that “the complete mental maturity of the defendant is in doubt.”

The Case of Seyyed Reza Hejazi

On August 19, 2008 the Iranian authorities executed Seyyed Reza Hejazi at Isfahan Central Prison for his role in a murder committed in 2003, when he was 15, and thus an adult under Iranian but not international law.18 The authorities did not notify Hejazi’s lawyer 48 hours prior to the execution, as required by Iranian law. Instead, his lawyer only learned of the pending execution from a journalist the night before, who had heard that Hejazi would be executed at 4 am the following morning. Hejazi’s lawyer immediately left Tehran for Isfahan, and arrived at the prison before the scheduled execution. However, prison authorities did not allow him to see his client, and he left the prison at 10 am after prison officials assured him that Hejazi’s execution had been stayed. However, upon returning to Tehran the lawyer learned that authorities had executed Hejazi at 11 am.

Hejazi was tried as an adult by Branch 106 of the Isfahan General Court and sentenced to death on November 14, 2005, for his role in a death resulting from a September 2003 fight involving several people. According to his lawyer, Hejazi alleged that he was attempting to separate a group of his friends during a fight when one of them punched him in the face. Hejazi then took out a knife and stabbed the man in the chest, and the man later died in hospital. Hejazi repeatedly stated that he did not intend to kill the victim. Nevertheless the judge did not encourage the victim’s family to pardon Hejazi or accept compensation for the killing, and Branch 28 of the National Supreme Court upheld the death sentence on June 6, 2006.

Saudi Arabian Legislation and Practice

The Saudi government does not publish an official interpretation of Sharia, a written penal code, or aninterpretative text carrying the force of law of the precise definitions of acts that constitute criminal offenses.19 As a result, judges have broad discretion in determining what acts are crimes and setting sentences, and courts impose the death penalty for a broad variety of offenses. Capital offenses include adultery, apostasy, “corruption on earth,” drug trafficking, sabotage, (political) rebellion, and murder during armed robbery.Under interpretations of Sharia prevailing in Saudi Arabia,murder and manslaughter are considered to be primarily offenses against a private right (qisas). Thus, while courts often impose the death penalty for murder or manslaughter, in these qisas cases the deceased’s family retains the right to insist on execution, accept monetary compensation, or issue a pardon. The court can also impose the death penalty as a discretionary punishment (ta’zir ) for any other actions it deems to be criminal.

Saudi Arabia has set but does not effectively enforce 12 years as the minimum age of criminal responsibility for boys. The minimum age of criminal responsibility does not apply in qisas cases, or in cases involving girls. In addition, Saudi Arabia has no law specifying when a child of either sex should be treated as an adult in criminal cases, and no law requiring judges to assess a child on his or her characteristics at the time of the offense nor at the time of trial, sentencing, or execution of sentence.

In practice, judges base determinations of majority (bulugh) in qisas cases on the defendant’s physical characteristics. According to a 2002 Council of Senior Scholars decree, majority in qisas cases is obtained when any one of four conditions are met: for males or females, 1) attaining 15 years of age; 2) occurrence of wet dreams (al-ihtilam); 3) appearance of pubic hair; or, in the case of girls, 4) upon menstruation.20

The Case of Mu`id bin Husayn bin Abu al-Qasim bin `Ali Hakami

Mu`id bin Husayn bin Abu al-Qasim bin `Ali Hakami was executed on July 10, 2007, for a murder he allegedly committed three years earlier, when he was 13 years old.21 According to Hakami’s father, the authorities violated Saudi Arabian laws governing investigation, trial, and execution: authorities prevented him from attending his son’s interrogation, which was held at a police station and not a juvenile detention center, did not allow him to attend the trial, did not inform him of the execution until days later, and have not returned his son’s body.22 As of this writing the Board of Grievances had twice postponed hearing the complaint brought by the family against the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Public Security.23

Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia has only a handful of lawyers specializing in criminal defense cases, and much less is known about the number of persons sentenced to death for crimes committed while children.24 Investigations conducted by Saudi Arabian journalists suggest that a significant number of children have been or are at risk of being sentenced to death. For example, an October 2006 investigation of the Jeddah Social Observation Home by Arab News that included interviews with the director and detainees reported that 40 of the 220 detainees were boys under age 16 charged with murder.25 In November 2005, the online arm of Saudi Arabia’sal-`Arabiya satellite news station, reported that Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Social Affairs held 126 children in juvenile detention centers “for committing murder.”26

11 When acceding to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on July 13, 1994, Iran stated it “reserves the right not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.” At its 2000 review of Iran’s implementation of the convention, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors the convention’s implementation, expressed concern that the “broad and imprecise nature of the State party’s general reservation potentially negates many of the Convention’s provisions and raises concern as to its compatibility with the object and purpose of the Convention.” Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child: Iran, CRC/C/15/Add.123, 28 June 2000, para 7. Saudi Arabia entered a similar reservation when it acceded to the CRC on January 26, 1996, entering a reservation “with respect to all such articles as are in conflict with the provisions of Islamic law.”

12 Amnesty International, “Death Sentences and Executions in 2007,” AI Index: ACT 50/001/2008, April 15, 2008, (accessed May 26, 2008).

13 A third individual, Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Otaibi, executed August 20, 2007, may also have been a juvenile offender. See, “Saudi Arabia beheads man convicted of murdering stepmother while minor,” Associated Press, August 20, 2007. According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia executed at least 158 people in 2007. See “Saudi Arabia: Further information on Death Penalty/Fear of imminent execution,” Amnesty International Urgent Action, AI Index: MDE 23/012/2008, April 8, 2008,

14 Iranian authorities executed juvenile offenders Behnam Zare on August 26, 2008; Seyyed Reza Hejazi on August 19, 2008; Hassan Mozafari and Rahman Shahidi on July 22, 2008; Mohammad Hassanzadeh on June 10, 2008; and Javad Shojai on February 26, 2008. See “Iran: Executions of Juvenile Offenders Rising: Iran Executes Sixth Juvenile Offender This Year, Twenty-Sixth Since 2005,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 27, 2008,; “Iran: Spare Four Youths From Execution: Enforce International Prohibition on Death Penalty for Juvenile Offenders,” Human Rights Watch joint news release, July 7, 2008,; “Iran: End Executions of Juvenile Offenders: 29 Adults and 2 Juvenile Offenders Hanged,” July 29 2008, Human Rights Watch joint news release, July 29, 2008,

15 The vaguely defined crimes of “enmity with God” and “corruption on earth” include but are not limited to “resorting to arms to cause terror, fear or to breach public security and freedom,” armed robbery, highway robbery, membership of or support for an organization, that seeks to overthrow the Islamic Republic; and plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic by procuring arms for this purpose. Islamic Penal Code, arts. 81, 126 133, 183. For a discussion of types of crimes and penalties in Iranian law, see Amnesty International, “Iran: The last executioner of children,” MDE 13/059/2007, June 2007, (accessed May 22, 2008).

16 Islamic Penal Code, art. 49; Civil Code of November 1991, art. 1210. For a discussion of prevailing debates over puberty and criminal responsibility in Iran, see the article by Iranian human rights defender Emad Baghi, “The Issue of Executions of Under-18s in Iran,” July 2007, (accessed May 21, 2008).

17 Iranian Penal Code, arts. 205, 206.

18 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mohammad Mostafaei, lawyer, Tehran, August 21, 2008. See also Mohammad Mostafaei, “To Defend the Defenseless” (Defa az bidefa), (last accessed August 26, 2008); “Iran: Further Information on Fear of Execution,” Amnesty International Urgent Action, AI Index: MDE 13/120/2008, August 19, 2008, (accessed August 22, 2008); email communication from individual familiar with the case to Human Rights Watch, March 3, 2008 (name withheld).

19 For a detailed discussion of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system, see Human Rights Watch, Precarious Justice: Arbitrary Detention and Unfair Trials in the Deficient Criminal Justice System of Saudi Arabia, vol. 20, no. 3(E), March 2008.

20 According to Minister of Justice `Abd Allah bin Mohammad bin Ibrahim Al al-Shaikh, under Sharia an individual who has reached majority (bulugh) can be executed, provided he is of sound mind. Other officials told Human Rights Watch that executions could be carried out in qisas cases from age 15 if the victim’s family demanded it, but not until age 18 in other capital offenses. Letter from Minister of Justice `Abd Allah bin Mohammad bin Ibrahim Al al-Shaikh to Human Rights Commission President Turki al-Sudairy, regarding Human Rights Watch’s request for clarification on qisas cases involving persons under age 18, March 12, 2008; and Council of Senior Scholars Decree 209 of January 23, 2002 (9/11/1422), regarding specifying an age of majority (bulugh). Human Rights Watch interviews with Dr. Eisa AbdulAziz al-Shamekh, Human Rights Commission board member, Riyadh, March 9, 2008, and Dr. `Abd al-Rahman al-Sabih, National Commission for Childhood, March 11, 2008.

21 See “The Qisas Execution of a Perpetrator for Killing a Boy after Trying to Rape Him” (al-Qatl Qisasan li Janin Hawal Fi`l al-Fahisha fi Sabi wa Qatalahu) al-Bilad newspaper (Jiddah), July 11, 2007, (accessed February 7, 2008). Under the shorter lunar calendar used in Saudi Arabia, Hakami would have just turned 14 years old at the time of the killing, and 16 at the time of his execution.

22 Samir Al-Saadi, “Father Seeks Justice for Son’s ’Wrongful’ Execution in Jizan,” Arab News, January 30, 2008, (accessed February 7, 2008).

23 Samir Al-Saadi, “Government Rep. Fails to Show Up for Hakami Case,” Arab News, February 4, 2008, (accessed February 7, 2008); Samir Al-Saadi, “al-Hakami Case Hearing Put Off,” Arab News, April 26, 2008, (accessed May 26, 2008).

24 At this writing, Human Rights Watch is aware of at least 13 cases where individuals have been sentenced to death for crimes committed while children. For a detailed discussion of Saudi Arabia’s juvenile justice system, including the juvenile death penalty, see Human Rights Watch, Adults Before Their Time: Children in Saudi Arabia’s Criminal Justice System, vol. 20, no. 4(E), March 2008,

25 Saeed Al-Abyad, “Helping Troubled Kids Integrate,” Arab News, October 11, 2006, (accessed May 22, 2008).

26 Hanan al-Zayr, “Dispute over the ‘Age [according to] Sharia for the Qisas Punishment: 126 ‘Children’ in Saudi Arabia Await ‘the Sword’” (Jadal hawal ‘al-sinal-shara`I’ lihad al-qisas: 126 ‘tiflan’ fi al-sa`udiya yantathirun ‘al-siyaf’),, November 9, 2005 (7/10/1426). The same investigation noted that “generally children sentenced to qisas punishment for committing murder … remain in the home [a juvenile detention center for boys known as a social observation home] until age 18, which is the age specified for implementing the punishment on the murderer if [the murderer] was a male juvenile, while a female is placed in the girls’ institution until age 21 and sometimes until age 25 if she had not matured by then, and then the qisas punishment is implemented.”