Saudi Arabia: Withdrawal of death sentences for three Shi’a activists arrested as teenagers a welcome move

The Saudi Arabian Specialized Criminal Court has commuted the death sentences of Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon, who were arrested as teenagers and convicted after unfair trials, and re-sentenced them to 10-year prison terms inclusive of time served, meaning that they could be released in 2022. Responding to the news, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Lynn Maalouf said:

“The news that these young men will not face execution no doubt comes as an immense relief for them and their families after several agonizing years on death row.

The news that these young men will not face execution no doubt comes as an immense relief for them and their families after several agonizing years on death row
Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International

“All three young men were convicted following grossly unfair trials based on so-called ‘confessions’ extracted through torture. They spent prime years of their lives suffering the dire consequences of an unfair trial, and what must have been a painful ordeal separated from their loved ones for nearly 10 years.

“Use of the death penalty for offences committed by people under 18 years of age at the time of the offence is a flagrant violation of international human rights law.

“The decision to commute the young men’s death sentences to prison terms comes after a significant and welcome decrease in the authorities’ use of the death penalty last year. This must serve as a clear turning point for Saudi Arabia. The authorities must ensure this marks a definitive end to the practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to death regardless of the nature of the crime, and must build on these reforms by taking steps towards abolishing the death penalty completely for all crimes.”

Background:

Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon were arrested separately in 2012, aged 17, 16 and 17 respectively. They were arrested for offences committed while participating in anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. All three were sentenced to death by the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in 2014 after flawed trials. Since then Amnesty International has been campaigning for the authorities not to execute them.

In August 2020, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor ordered a review of their sentences. Their death sentences have been commuted to 10 years in prison, according to the Saudi Arabian Human Rights Commission.

Last month, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced that the number of executions in 2020 dropped by 85% compared to 2019. It attributed that in part to a moratorium on executions for drug-related offences, "giving more non-violent criminals a second chance". This moratorium had not previously been announced officially.

In April 2020, Saudi Arabia issued a Royal Order announcing plans to end its use of the death penalty for people under the age of 18 in discretionary cases not involving the counter-terror law. This follows the issuing of a 2018 Law on Juveniles, which prevents judges from imposing discretionary death sentences on those under 15 years old. These announcements must be followed by clear implementing regulations which do not exclude any minors from the reform.