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Saudi Arabia: Partial Criminal Justice Revisions

Death Penalty Ended for Some Child Offenders, Flogging for Certain Crimes

Ali al-Nimr was one of at least three Saudi men on death row for protest-related crimes committed when they were children. © 2011 Eshaparvathi/Creative Commons

UPDATEOn April 28, the governmental Saudi Human Rights Commission issued a statement confirming that child offenders convicted of terrorism crimes would be spared the death penalty, but remains unclear whether they would benefit from the maximum prison term of 10 years for children. It remains unclear whether Saudi authorities will consider individuals tried in the Specialized Criminal Court, the country's terrorism tribunal, but not convicted under the 2017 counter terrorism law as terrorism detainees.

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia has introduced criminal justice changes that will curb the death penalty for some child offenders and end flogging as a punishment for some crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. Saudi Arabia should make the prohibitions on flogging and on executing children absolute.

The local newspaper Okaz confirmed both decreed changes but clarified that they do not apply to certain categories of offenses known as qisas, or retributive justice – usually for murder – or hudud, serious crimes defined under Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islamic law that carry specific penalties. People convicted in hudud cases could still face flogging, and child offenders convicted in hudud or qisas cases could still face the death penalty.

“While positive, these changes don’t go far enough to protect children from major flaws in Saudi Arabia's notorious criminal justice system including the risk of torture, unfair trials, and the death penalty,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These changes should be merely a starting point for a complete and transparent overhaul of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system.”

Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world and executes people for crimes including murder, drug smuggling, rape, armed robbery, and terrorism offenses. It is one of only a handful of countries that impose the death penalty for child offenders. While the president of the Saudi Human Rights Commission publicly stated that the death penalty for child offenders had been abolished by royal decree, the Saudi Press Agency, the country’s official news agency, has not yet announced either change.  

The decreed changes cited by Okaz appear to expand on a law introduced in 2018, the “Juvenile Act,” which provides some protections for children involved with the criminal justice system. The law sets the maximum prison term for anyone convicted of committing a crime before they turn 18 at no more than 10 years, but this limitation does not apply to qisas and hudud cases.

The new decree would allow for applying the 2018 law’s provisions retroactively, meaning that prosecutors are obliged to review the cases of convicted children and drop punishments for those who have already served 10 years. However, it appears the new regulations would exclude those convicted on terrorism-related offenses.

At least three Saudi men are on death row for protest-related crimes committed when they were children. Ali al-Nimr, Daoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher were arrested for their alleged protest participation and violence against security forces in 2011 and 2012. Their trials by Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, which culminated in death penalty sentences in 2014, were marred with flagrant due process violations. The three men may be eligible for reduced sentences under the new regulations if the Saudi authorities do not classify their cases as terrorism related.

Human Rights Watch has documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system that make it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial even in capital cases.

In April 2019, Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 37 men, 33 of whom were from the country’s Shia minority community. One, Abd al-Kareem al-Hawaj, was a child at the time of his alleged offenses.

In June 2019, Saudi prosecutors sought the death penalty against an 18-year-old, Murtaja Qureiris, who allegedly committed some of his offenses when he was just 10 or 11 years old and who was arrested at 13. Later that month, following international pressure, he was spared the death penalty and instead sentenced to 12 years in prison. On April 8, 2020, Saudi authorities briefly posted an execution announcement to the Saudi Press Agency website for a man convicted of murder when he was a child, but the announcement was removed later that day. The Saudi authorities have not revealed whether the execution was carried out.

International law includes an absolute prohibition on the death penalty for crimes committed by children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a party, prohibits capital punishment for anyone who was under 18 at the time of the crime. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.

Most recently, in 2018, the United Nations General Assembly said that countries should establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, progressively restrict the practice, and reduce the offenses for which it might be imposed, all with a view toward its eventual abolition. Then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on all countries in 2013 to abolish the death penalty.

International human rights law also prohibits judicial verdicts imposing corporal punishment, including flogging, as constituting torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.

Saudi Arabia should enact further legal changes to halt all executions of offenders and all flogging punishments without exception, Human Rights Watch said.

“Criminal justice reform is important, but Saudi Arabia also needs to begin the hard work of reforming and professionalizing the entire justice system so that all Saudi citizens and residents have confidence that they will receive a fair trial,” Page said. “In the meantime, the government should immediately commute the death penalty for every child and all flogging sentences.”

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