Saudi Arabia must publicly commit to ending the execution of juvenile offenders, as the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended on Friday, Human Rights Watch said today.
At least 126 individuals are on death row in Saudi Arabia for crimes they were found to have committed before age 18, the Saudi online news station alarabiya.net reported in November 2005, citing government sources. Human Rights Watch has received reliable reports of children sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were as young as 13.
“Sentencing children to death disregards everything children’s rights were meant to protect,” said Lois Whitman, director of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “The Saudi government should immediately commute all death sentences imposed on children.”
The Committee on the Rights of the Child monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and reviewed Saudi Arabia’s treatment of children on January 24-25, 2005. Using exceptionally strong language, the committee faulted the Saudi government for its practice of imposing the juvenile death penalty, calling it “a serious violation of the fundamental rights” under the convention. The committee said it was “deeply alarmed” over the discretionary power judges hold to treat children as adults in cases involving capital punishment.
In its concluding observations the committee called on Saudi Arabia “to immediately suspend the execution of all death penalties imposed on persons for having committed a crime before the age of 18, to take the appropriate legal measures to convert them to penalties in conformity with the provisions of the Convention, and to abolish as a matter of the highest priority the death penalty as a sentence imposed on persons for having committed crimes before the age of 18.”
Saudi Arabia had stated in its 2004 report to the committee that, under the shari`a (Islamic law) in force in the kingdom, it “never imposes capital punishment on persons who have not attained their majority” and that Saudi Arabian law defines a juvenile “as every human being below the age of 18.” However, during questioning by the committee, the government delegation acknowledged that a judge could impose the death penalty whenever he decided that the convicted person had reached his or her majority, regardless of the person’s actual age at the time of the crime or at the time of the scheduled execution.
“It appears that the Saudi government is not serious about honoring the commitments it has made under international human rights treaties,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “This shows the large gap between Saudi Arabia’s human rights obligations and its daily practice.”
In September 2005, Human Rights Watch urged the Saudi government to commute the death sentence of 14-year-old Ahmad D., sentenced to death in July 2005 for killing another child when he was 13. The court in Dammam tried Ahmad as an adult based on its assessment of the coarseness of his voice and the appearance of pubic hair. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child forbid imposing the death sentence for a crime committed by someone under the age of 18.
The Saudi judicial system, moreover, does not afford children their basic due process rights. Ahmad D. did not have a lawyer and he only confessed under police questioning because “my strength dwindled and I lacked the capacity to refuse,” according to a Saudi press report in al-Yom al-Elektroni. Ahmad was detained in solitary confinement during the investigation and the court reportedly refused his father’s request to have a psychological examination determine his maturity.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child also expressed deep concern that judges had discretion to impose corporal punishment against children. It called on the government to “take all necessary steps for the immediate abolition of extrajudicial and summary floggings of teenagers, and also other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments imposed on persons having committed a crime when under the age of 18 years, including acts of police brutality.” In addition, the committee recommended that Saudi Arabia “strengthen its efforts to ensure that persons under 18 years of age in conflict with the law have access to legal aid and independent and effective complaints mechanisms.”
Saudi Arabia ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1996 and considers it to be a valid source of domestic law. The treaty prohibits capital punishment and sentences of life imprisonment without possibility of release for persons under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. It also guarantees children accused of a crime the right to legal or other assistance in the preparation and presentation of their defense, and the right not to be compelled to give testimony or to confess guilt.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child monitors implementation of the CRC in periodic reviews and issues concluding observations describing its findings and making recommendations for actions states should take to fulfill their obligations under the treaty. It last reviewed Saudi Arabia’s treatment of children in January 2001.