Children and the death penalty in Saudi Arabia

Summary: despite a royal decree in 2020 by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman that those sentenced to death for alleged crimes committed when they were juveniles would no longer be executed, evidence emerged this week that the executions will continue.

While the world watches the unfolding tragedy in Gaza where IDF strikes have  left more than 3000 dead and while it is still reeling from the Hamas massacre that killed 1400 Israelis and now the destruction of the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza City with hundreds killed, concern is growing for a Saudi convicted for an alleged offence he committed as a child, sentenced to death and according to the rights group Reprieve at imminent risk of being executed.

It is another example of the infamous phrase delivered by a Labour aide to then Prime Minister Tony Blair days after 9/11: “a good time to bury bad news.” Mohammed bin Salman has been riding a crest of favourable headlines, despite the kingdom’s atrocious human rights record and his involvement in the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi five years ago.

Executing someone convicted for an alleged crime committed as a child, i.e. being involved in street protests, rather tarnishes the prince’s image, highly polished as it has been by a slick and expensive PR campaign amply assisted by the keenness of US President Joe Biden and other Western leaders including Rishi Sunak to get on the right side of the street with MbS.

Abdullah al-Derazi was arrested in 2014 at a time when protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province were running high as Shia Muslims took to the streets. He was charged with numerous crimes including:

participating in the formation of a terrorist cell aimed at destabilising the internal security in the country and targeting security men, participating in demonstrations and marches, attacking and destroying public property, carrying out acts of sabotage and chaos, obstructing the road and seeking to cause strife, division and division in the country, assaulting security men by throwing explosion bottles at them, blocking the road for pedestrians by burning tires, chanting anti-state slogans, participating in Ahmed Al-Matar’s funeral and organizing the funeral (distributing water during it). 

 Al-Matar was shot and killed by security forces in 2012. At the time of his funeral Al-Derazi was 17 years old.

In 2018 Abdullah Al-Derazi was sentenced to death by the Specialised Criminal Court that deals with offences committed under the kingdom’s draconian anti-terrorism laws.

Reprieve is representing three child defendants in Saudi Arabia who are facing execution: Abdullah al-Derazi, Youssef al-Manasif and Abdullah al-Howaiti.
Reprieve is representing three child defendants in Saudi Arabia who are facing execution: Abdullah al-Derazi, Youssef al-Manasif and Abdullah al-Howaiti.

The conviction came despite credible evidence that his confession was secured under torture. Reprieve notes in an advocacy briefing prepared for politicians and seen by Arab Digest:

Abdullah was held incommunicado for three months, and he remained in solitary confinement for approximately six months, during which time he was physically and psychologically tortured. Prison officers burned Abdullah around his eye, broke his tooth and injured his knee. Abdullah alleges he was restrained and suspended for a long time and that his ear was severely injured as a result of torture during this time. This abuse led to Abdullah’s hospitalisation, where he spent two weeks in a coma.

The court ignored his allegations of torture and they were never investigated. This week it was learned that the kingdom’s Supreme Court has now upheld the death sentence.

In 2020 Saudi Arabia issued a royal decree announcing that it was no longer using the death penalty against those whose alleged crimes were committed when they were children. However several cases, including Abdullah al-Derazi’s, show that the authorities are paying little heed to the decree.

Morris Tindall-Binz the UN Special Rapporteur on summary, extrajudicial or arbitrary executions commented on Monday

There were seven charges listed on Al-Derazi’s charge sheet, none of which were dated. The prosecution’s only evidence was his allegedly coerced confession.

While Saudi Arabia has taken some positive steps regarding the treatment of children in the criminal justice system, such as the promulgation of its 2018 Juvenile Act, information received indicates that it still sentences and enforces the death penalty against offenders below the age of 18.

Jeed Basyouni, who leads Reprieve’s MENA death penalty team, said:

We are extremely worried that Saudi Arabia is preparing to execute Abdullah. This is a regime callous enough to torture and kill a young man for the ‘crime’ of allegedly attending protests when he was a child – and cynical enough to do so while international attention is elsewhere. The lie that Saudi Arabia has abolished the death penalty for juveniles depends on ignorance or wilful blindness. The world must see this cruelty for what it really is, and demand an end to it.

At the time of writing, the fate of Abdullah al-Derazi remains unknown.

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