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Loopholes in Saudi promise to end death sentences against children

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Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission has announced that children are no longer eligible for the death penalty in the Kingdom. Citing a royal decree, the commission stated that anyone convicted of crimes that took place while they were under the age of 18 will face a maximum punishment of ten years in juvenile detention.

The full text of the decree has not been published, but initial legal analysis of an unofficial version posted online suggests there are significant loopholes that will enable prosecutors to continue to seek death sentences against children.

There are currently 13 people facing death sentences in Saudi Arabia for alleged crimes that occurred when they were minors: four who have exhausted all legal remedies and are at imminent risk of execution, one whose death sentence is subject to appeal and eight currently on trial. All were charged with terrorism offences related to attending pro-democracy demonstrations. It appears that an exception in the new decree would mean such offences remain death-eligible, irrespective of the age of the defendant.

In theory, Royal Decree No.113 on the Juvenile Law, enacted in August 2018, already prohibited death sentences being imposed against minors in Saudi Arabia. But in practice, a loophole in this law, maintaining capital punishment for hudud and qisas offences in Shari’a law, enables prosecutors to charge children as young as seven years old with capital crimes. In one current case, a young man is charged with terrorism offences for attending a funeral at the age of nine – prosecutors are seeking a death sentence against him.

The Human Rights Commission has not announced whether the new decree will be applied retroactively. Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher remain on death row in Saudi Arabia, at imminent risk of execution for alleged crimes that occurred before they were 18 years old. In 2016, Saudi Arabia assured the UK Government that they would not be executed, but their sentences have not been commuted and they could be executed without warning at any time.

Last year, Saudi Arabia executed 185 people, including at least three young men who were children at the time of their alleged offences: Mujtaba al-Sweikat, Abdulkarim al-Hawaj and Salman Qureish.

Reprieve director Maya Foa said: “These will be nothing more than empty words as long as child defendants remain on death row. Mohammed Bin Salman has been promising to ‘minimise’ the death penalty for years, but the Kingdom continues to execute people convicted of attending demonstrations while they were still in school. Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher remain at imminent risk of execution. If the Saudis are serious about reform, their death sentences should be commuted immediately.”

ESOHR director Ali Adubisi said: “There are at least 13 people currently facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for offences they allegedly committed as minors. Nothing about this announcement changes that. They won’t be safe until the government has commuted their sentences and withdrawn demands for the death penalty.”

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