(Beirut) – Three Saudi men are awaiting execution for alleged, protest-related crimes committed while they were children. Saudi judges based the capital convictions primarily on confessions that the three defendants retracted in court and said had been coerced. The courts did not investigate the allegations that the confessions were obtained by torture. Saudi Arabia’s announcement on March 11, 2016 that it will execute another four men for terrorism offenses raises fears that one or all three of the sentences could be carried out.

Human Rights Watch has obtained and analyzed the trial judgments that the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, handed down in 2014 against one of the men, Ali al-Nimr, and in a separate case, against Dawoud al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher. The judgments reveal flagrant due process violations, including denial of access to lawyers promptly after arrest or during lengthy pretrial detention, when investigators obtained the confessions.

“Sentencing alleged child offenders to death is an appalling example of the Saudi court system’s injustice,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “Not only are these three young men sentenced to death for alleged crimes they committed as children, but the courts didn’t even bother to investigate when they said they were coerced to confess.”

Sentencing alleged child offenders to death is an appalling example of the Saudi court system’s injustice.

Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East Director

The three were arrested for their alleged participation in demonstrations by members of the Shia minority in 2011 and 2012. Local activists told Human Rights Watch that more than 200 people from Shia-majority towns and villages in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province have gone on trial for alleged protest-related crimes since 2011.

Mostly Shia residents of Eastern Province towns such as Qatif, Awamiya, and Hufuf have repeatedly held protests over discrimination by the government since 2011. Saudi Arabia’s Shia citizens face systematic discrimination in public education, government employment, and permission to build houses of worship in the majority-Sunni country.

Al-Nimr was tried individually and sentenced in May 2014. The other two were tried as part of a group and sentenced in October 2014. Al-Nimr and al-Marhoun were 17 at the time of their arrests, while al-Zaher was 15.

Local media reported that Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court upheld al-Nimr’s death sentence in September 2015, and that the Supreme Court informed a relative of al-Marhoun that it had upheld death sentences for al-Marhoun and al-Zaher in October 2015.

On January 2, 2016, Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 47 men convicted on terrorism-related charges, four of whom were Shia, including a prominent cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, Ali al-Nimr’s uncle. The trial judgement for Ali Sa'eed Al Ribh, one of the other Shia men executed on January 2, indicates that he was under 18 when he allegedly committed some of the protest-related crimes for which he was sentenced to death in 2014.

In 2015, only Iran and Pakistan executed people for crimes committed when they were under 18, according to Amnesty International. Both countries, as well as Bangladesh and Maldives, also sentenced child offenders to death last year, while previously convicted child offenders remained on death row in Indonesia, Iran, Papua New Guinea, and Saudi Arabia.

Since the beginning of 2016 Saudi Arabia has executed 84 people. Saudi Arabia executed 158 people in 2015, most for murder and drug smuggling.

Article 13 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, guarantees the right to a fair trial. Article 15 of the Convention against Torture, to which Saudi Arabia acceded in 1997, obliges Saudi Arabia to “ensure that any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings…”

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Saudi Arabia acceded in 1996, stipulates a number of important rights for children accused of committing crimes. They include the right to prepare an appropriate defense with “legal or other appropriate assistance” (article 40.2), the right “to have the matter determined without delay by a competent, independent and impartial authority or judicial body in a fair hearing according to law, in the presence of legal or other appropriate assistance,” including the child’s parents or legal guardian (article 40.3), and the right to “not to be compelled to give testimony or to confess guilt” (article 40.4). Article 37(a) prohibits capital punishment for children in all cases. Saudi authorities appear to have violated these obligations in the cases of al-Nimr, al-Marhoun, and al-Zaher, Human Rights Watch said.

“Unfair trials of Shia citizens are simply another way Saudi Arabia has tried to silence its citizen’s demands to end long-term discrimination,” Whitson said. “The authorities should not compound their repression by killing child offenders.”

Death Sentences for Child Protesters
The charges against the young men relate to their alleged role in the Eastern Province protests. Al-Nimr’s judgment states he was convicted for crimes that included “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “going out to a number of marches, demonstrations, and gatherings against the state and repeating some chants against the state,” and setting up a website on his Blackberry to incite demonstrations. He was also convicted of attacking police with Molotov cocktails and rocks, concealing men wanted by police, and helping the wanted men avoid police raids. Prosecutors gave no details of any injuries to police officers.

Al-Zaher and al-Marhoun, arrested in March and May of 2012 respectively, both faced numerous charges including “participating in marches and gatherings ... and chanting slogans against the state” as well as throwing Molotov cocktails at police patrols. Al-Marhoun was also charged with attacking the Awamiya police station, burglarizing a pharmacy to steal medical supplies to treat wounded protesters, and supporting protesters by “buying water and distributing it to them.” Al-Zaher was separately charged with concealing men wanted by security forces. The court convicted al-Zaher and al-Marhoun on all of these charges.

The three men were detained without charge for up to 22 months and denied access to lawyers before and during their trials. Family members told Human Rights Watch that following al-Nimr’s arrest in February 2012, authorities did not permit them to visit for four months. The authorities called him before a judge for the first time in December 2013 without informing his family, allowing him to appoint a lawyer, or providing a copy of his charge sheet. The court held three more sessions before the authorities allowed al-Nimr to appoint a defense lawyer. Yet, as the trial judgment records, despite court orders to the contrary, officials at Dammam Mabahith Prison did not allow al-Nimr’s lawyer to visit him in prison to help prepare a defense before or during his trial.

A family member of al-Marhoun told Human Rights Watch that authorities also held him without charge from the time of his arrest on May 21, 2012 until late 2013 before charging him and taking him to court. The family member said authorities held him incommunicado at a detention facility for minors for two weeks, and then held him incommunicado again for one month after transferring him to Dammam Mabahith Prison. Defense lawyers for al-Marhoun and al-Zaher told the court that neither boy had been permitted to have a parent or lawyer present during interrogation.

The court found al-Nimr guilty on the basis of a confession he signed during his interrogation despite his statements that one of his interrogators wrote it and that he signed it under duress without reading it. The judgment stated that although the investigator wrote the confession, it was admissible because al-Nimr signed it. Family members said that al-Nimr agreed to sign the statement only after interrogators told him that they would then release him.

The court also found al-Marhoun and al-Zaher guilty based on their confessions. Defense lawyers for al-Zaher and al-Marhoun said that both boys had been beaten and threatened with further beatings if they did not sign confessions written by interrogators. One of al-Marhoun’s relatives said that interrogators forced him to provide an ink fingerprint on a written confession that he did not read and that he had trouble speaking and eating because of his beatings.

Prosecutors presented no material evidence connecting al-Marhoun to his alleged crimes other than the confession. For al-Zaher, prosecutors presented only the confession and his arrest report, which stated that police “saw people with Molotov bombs and chased one of them until they arrested him, and after scanning the area they were in they found 33 glasses filled with benzene...”

Judges immediately dismissed the defendants’ claims that interrogators coerced confessions, without investigating the allegations that the evidence was obtained by torture. In dismissing al-Nimr’s torture claims, the judge ruled that “Religious scholars have ruled that retracting a confession for a discretionary crime is not acceptable…. Therefore, what the defendant has retracted from what appeared in his legally signed statement is not permitted, and what the defendant has argued regarding coercion was not proven to the judges.”

Lawyers for all three men asked the court to summon the people who interrogated the defendants to clarify the circumstances of their confessions, but judges ignored these requests.

Authorities are holding all three men in Dammam Mabahith Prison.