Five people in Saudi Arabia who committed crimes as minors are still awaiting execution, despite the kingdom’s April announcement that juvenile offenders would no longer face the death penalty, rights groups said Monday.
In April, Saudia Arabia’s government-operated Human Rights Commission (HRC) announced that a royal decree from King Salman had eliminated the death penalty for people who had committed crimes while underage. Instead of execution, these individuals would now face “a prison sentence of no longer than 10 years in a juvenile detention facility.” HRC president Awwad Alawwad said that “[m]ore reforms will be coming” and that the HRC is “confident that Saudi Arabia will live up to its objectives in creating a better quality of life for all of its citizens and residents.” However, the announcement did not give a timeline for the decree and neither it nor the royal decree were ever properly published or promulgated in state media.
Human rights organizations Reprieve and the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) on Monday published a joint press release discussing the kingdom’s recent drop in execution rate. Saudi Arabia executed 25 people in 2020, the “lowest figure on record” since the two groups began monitoring the country’s rate of executions in 2013. The number included at least one person underage. While the decreased rate is promising, Reprieve and ESOHR both attributed the drop to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as an “unofficial de facto moratorium on executions for certain non-violent offences” pursuant to Islamic Sharia law.
In fact, the groups speculated that Saudi execution rates may go up in 2021, citing the government’s increased use of the death penalty in the last quarter of 2020 and especially in December, when a third of the 2020 executions were carried out. ESOHR is currently monitoring 80 cases of individuals whose crimes are tangential to “protected human rights,” or whose cases have otherwise lacked due process. Some of the individuals’ “confessions were coerced through acts of torture” and their “executions would be illegal under international law.”
In the press release, Reprieve director Maya Foa stated that “if Mohammed Bin Salman is serious about reform, Saudi Arabia should release the young men sentenced to death for childhood crimes, and publish laws protecting vulnerable drug mules from execution.” ESOHR Legal Director James Suzano made a similar point, saying that “Saudi Arabia still has a lot of work to do if it hopes to fulfil its obligations under international law. It can start by publishing the 2020 royal decree and officially recognising its de facto moratorium on ta’zir executions, and continue that work by withdrawing the death penalty against anyone accused of a ta’zir offence.”
According to Reuters, the kingdom’s Center for International Communication (CIC) did not take such concerns seriously, only stating that the “Royal Order issued in March 2020 was put into effect immediately upon its issuance and was circulated to the relevant authorities for instant implementation.” The CIC also claimed that the five people currently sentenced to death would receive lesser penalties per the royal decree, although this claim has not been verified.