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Saudi Arabia: Alleged Child Offenders Face Death Sentences

Reform to Curb Death Penalty for Children Leaves Glaring Exceptions

Men hold placards bearing portraits of a prominent Shia Muslim cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution sparked demonstrations in 2016 by the country's minority Shia citizens against systematic governmental discrimination. Some of the alleged child offenders currently on trial were accused of attending similar protests.   © 2016 STR/AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against eight Saudi men charged with protest-related crimes, some of which they allegedly committed as children, Human Rights Watch said today. The ongoing cases demonstrate critical gaps in a 2018 criminal justice reform curbing the death penalty for child offenders, leaving the eight men at risk of capital punishment.

Human Rights Watch obtained and analyzed the charge sheets for two group trials that included the eight men in 2019. Some of the crimes listed were allegedly committed while the men were between ages 14 and 17. One of the men, now 18, is charged for a nonviolent crime he allegedly committed at age 9. All eight men have been in pretrial detention for up to two years.

“Saudi spin doctors are marketing judicial reforms as progress while prosecutors appear to blatantly ignore them and carry on as usual,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Saudi Arabia is serious about reforming its criminal justice system, it should start by banning the death penalty against alleged child offenders in all cases.”

The Public Prosecution, which reports directly to the king, accused the detained men of several charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes, including “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” “chanting slogans hostile to the regime,” and “seeking to incite discord and division.” All of the men are from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where most of the country’s Shia minority live.

In 2018, around a year before prosecutors referred the cases to court, Saudi Arabia introduced the Juvenile Law, which sets a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for anyone who committed a crime before they turned 18 and was convicted under the Islamic law principle of ta’zir. Ta’zir offenses do not have set penalties under Islamic law, and judges have wide discretion to determine punishments in individual cases.

However, this provision does not apply to qisas, or retributive justice offenses – usually for murder – or hudud, serious crimes defined under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law that carry specific penalties.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the eight men under hudud, which would leave them ineligible for pardons if sentenced to death. The Saudi prosecution also demands that if the judge does not impose the death penalty on the basis of hudud, he should do so on under ta’zir, in blatant disregard of the Juvenile Law.

Saudi authorities arrested the men between April 2017 and January 2018. One group – Ahmad al-Faraj, Ali al-Batti, Mohammed al-Nimr, Ali al-Faraj, and Mohammed al-Faraj – have only had two trial hearings since first being presented to court in September 2019, partly due to Covid-19 restrictions. Human Rights Watch could not determine how many hearings the second group – Ali al-Mabyook, Sajjad al-Yasin, and Yousef al-Manasif – has had nor the month they were first presented to court in 2019. The next court hearings for both groups remain unclear.

Saudi activists in communication with sources close to al-Nimr and al-Faraj told Human Rights Watch that authorities tortured them during their initial detention and interrogation and that both were denied access to legal counsel.

The crimes listed in the men’s charge sheets, which for seven of the eight men included attacking police officers or patrols with Molotov cocktails or firearms, are almost entirely based on the men’s confessions, and give no details of any injuries to police officers.

Al-Faraj, now 18, was arrested at age 15 and is the youngest of the eight. The charges against him, none for violent crimes, include participating in demonstrations and funeral processions, one of which he confessed to attending when he was 9. Other charges include chanting slogans against the state, concealing men wanted by police, and monitoring and sharing the movements of armored security vehicles via WhatsApp with men wanted by the police.

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 them from the country’s Shia minority community. One, Abd al-Kareem al-Hawaj, was a child at the time of his alleged offenses and arrest; another, Salman Al Quraish, was a child at the time of some 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 and 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, the Saudi authorities briefly posted an execution announcement to the Saudi Press Agency website for a man convicted of murder allegedly committed when he was a child, but the announcement was removed later that day. The Saudi authorities have not publicly confirmed whether they executed him.

International law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a state party, absolutely prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed by children. 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.

In April, Saudi Arabia introduced a royal decree allowing the 2018 Juvenile Law’s provisions to be retroactively applied, meaning that justice officials can review the cases of convicted child offenders and stop punishments for those who have already served 10 years.

On August 26, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced the judiciary would review three death sentences in accordance with the recent decree. Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher were between 15 and 17 when arrested in connection with demonstrations in 2011 by the country’s minority Shia citizens against systematic governmental discrimination. They were held incommunicado and detained without charge or trial for up to 22 months, and eventually sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials.

Under the decree, the commission stated, the three detainees will be resentenced based on the Saudi Juvenile Law. They will have completed the maximum 10 years in prison under that law by 2022.

“Saudi authorities should spare Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher’s lives and make sure no other alleged child offender ends up on death row,” Page said.

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