Saudi Arabia has commuted the death sentence imposed on Ali Mohammed al-Nimr for participating in protests when he was a child. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman also announced the government would finally establish a criminal code that will “protect human rights.” The developments offer a glimmer of hope that the country’s appalling criminal justice system might improve.
Saudi authorities arrested al-Nimr in 2012, aged 16, during protests by Shi`a citizens, subjects of longstanding discrimination. For four months, authorities prevented the boy’s family from visiting him in detention. Nobody informed them when he finally saw a judge after 13 months in jail. Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court held three hearings before letting al-Nimr appoint a lawyer, whom he was then barred from meeting. Al-Nimr’s charges included vague accusations of attacking security forces, as well as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “repeating some chants against the state.”
In 2014, the court sentenced al-Nimr to death, but he was not the only alleged child offender put on death row. In a related case, the court also sentenced two others arrested while still children, Dawoud al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher, to the same fate. The three were convicted almost solely on the basis of their confessions, which they said were coerced by torture.
On February 8, 2021, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced that the authorities had reduced the death sentences against all three to 10-year prison terms, under a 2018 law that prohibits the death penalty for child offenders in some cases and a 2020 decree that allows the law to be applied retroactively.
In a fair justice system, they might never have faced a night in jail, much less execution: children may be detained only exceptionally, and the child death penalty is absolutely prohibited under international law.
A Saudi penal code that upholds basic human rights would be transformational, but authorities must resist the temptation to pack it with same types of vague criminal charges that are used to silence peaceful criticism and circumscribe basic rights.
One test of the criminal reform now promised will be if it would uphold the rights of children who participate in protests against government discrimination, like Ali al-Nimr.