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In a major propaganda campaign, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is discussing abolishing the ta’zir [discretionary] death penalty against minors, yet the lives of others remain under threat. On 26 August 2020, the official Saudi Human Rights Commission announced the implementation of the royal order issued in March 2020, to review the sentences handed down against three people. The announcement came amid ongoing ambiguity surrounding the royal order. The only copy of it, circulated non-officially by the Human Rights Commission, showed that it exempts minors sentenced under the anti-terrorism law.
The Commission’s announced review of the three sentences, pursuant to the 2018 Law on Juveniles that stipulates a maximum penalty of ten years in prison for minors, makes no mention of the cases of other minors facing execution, thus raising concerns for their fate. According to ESOHR’s documentation, at least ten minors face the death sentence in various stages of prosecution.
In addition to international law, Saudi Arabia has previously violated its own laws. In April 2019, a year after the Law on Juveniles was issued prohibiting the death sentence against minors, the government executed six detainees who were minors at the time of their arrest or on the date their alleged charges occurred.
Among the cases documented by ESOHR is that of five minors for whom the Public Prosecution is demanding the hudud punishment for hirabah [unlawful warfare and banditry]. The five, arrested based on allegations of non-serious crimes and lawful practices, include Ahmed Abdul Wahid al-Faraj, Ali Mohammed Al Bati, Mohammed Hussein Al Nimr, Ali Hassan al-Faraj, and Mohammed Essam al-Faraj.
On 29 June 2017, Saudi forces arrested, without a warrant, eight young men in Medina during their religious tourism travel. At the time, they ranged from 15 to 21 years of age. Since their arrest more than two years ago, they have suffered horrific conditions, including long detentions before being presented to the court, torture and other forms of degrading and inhuman treatment, solitary confinement, and deprivation of legal representation.
The Public Prosecution filed a series of charges against them, many of which date back to when the defendants were minors, relating to participating in demonstrations, calling for protests, participating in funerals of victims of excessive state violence, concealing wanted individuals, and providing them medication. In addition, some of them are facing charges of firing on government forces, with no explanation in the charges of how or when the firing took place or its results.
According to ESOHR’s records, some of these defendants are among the youngest to ever face charges leading to the death penalty, against the backdrop of the demonstrations that began in Saudi Arabia in 2011. For example, the child, Mohammed Essam al-Faraj (born on 25 February 2002), is charged with participating, at the age of nine, in the funeral of a victim of extrajudicial killing operations carried out by Saudi special forces in the governorate of Qatif since 2012. Ahmed al-Faraj (born on 22 March 1999) and Ali Al Bati (born on 14 April 1999) face charges related to their association with wanted persons, when they were 13 years old. Mohammed Al Nimr (born on 17 February 1998) is charged with participating in the funeral of a victim of extrajudicial killing, when he was 14 years old. Likewise, Ali al-Faraj (born on 29 May 1996) is charged with participating in the funeral of a victim of the Saudi government, when he was 17 years old. Some of the charges against these young men are related to supporting Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al Nimr’s demand for social justice and keeping his picture. Sheikh Al Nimr was executed on 2 January 2016, after a grossly unfair trial.
The Public Prosecution has filed charges against most of them for participating in demonstrations. For example, charges against Mohammed Al Nimr, Ali al-Faraj, and Mohammed al-Faraj include participation in demonstrations and chanting slogans against the state. Ahmed al-Faraj is charged with participating in protests demanding that the bodies of Miqdad Al Nimr and Mohammed Al Nimr be handed over after Saudi forces killed the two men on 28 March 2017, during a raid to capture wanted persons in the area of Al-Ramis farms in Awamiyah. In addition to the aforementioned five defendants, the Public Prosecution is seeking in the same case “a harsh and serious ta’zir punishment” against Mujtaba Saud Abu Kabous, Haider Ali al-Saffar, and Hussein Said al-Sebeiti, on charges which sometimes go back to when they were minors. The charges against these three are virtually identical to those against the other five defendants. Over and above this, Mujtaba Abu Kabous is facing charges of “funding terrorism and terrorism operations,” under article one, paragraph (b) of the Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, for “delivering meals” four times to his fugitive brother and two companions.
ESOHR stresses its continuing concerns for the lives of the five minors and the other minors, despite the promises and propaganda of the Saudi government and its recent steps towards ostensibly eliminating the death penalty for minors. ESOHR notes that it is the Saudi government’s custom to disregard its promises and make assertions contrary to fact. In January 2020, just months after the execution of minors and amid the threat against dozens of others, the Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, denied Saudi practices before the European Parliament, saying, “Your information about Saudi Arabia is based on rumors. Saudi Arabia does not sentence to death those under the age of 18.”
Moreover, deficiencies and ambiguities in the laws, especially the failure to publish an official version of the recent royal order, increase the dangers to the remaining minors, as the Saudi government did not include qisas [retaliation] and hudud penalties in the royal order. Furthermore, the sole leaked copy of the royal order excludes cases related to terrorism. While the Public Prosecution is seeking the hudud punishment for hirabah against those whom the government considers “fighters against God and his Prophet,” the possibility of changing the type of death penalty used against them remains.
ESOHR emphasizes that any official promises not followed by steps toward implementation are unreliable, and that any non-comprehensive steps that include discretion and exceptions will increase concerns for the lives of minors and demonstrate the propagandistic nature of these decisions. This is what the Saudi government has consistently done in the past.