Two recent stories of imprisoned children in Saudi Arabia reveal a disturbing pattern of Saudi leaders using minors to settle scores with their political opponents. A former high-ranking Saudi intelligence officer accused Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of holding his two teenage children, Sara and Omar Aljabri, hostage to force him to return to the country, while Ali al-Nimr, a young Saudi who had been sentenced to death, was finally released from prison in late October. Al-Nimr spent nearly 10 years in prison largely because he is the nephew of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric who was executed by Saudi authorities in early January 2016.
Their mistreatment reflects the cruel politics in Saudi Arabia of holding children hostage because of their parents' or other adult relatives' purported misdeeds. It demonstrates a total disregard for the harm caused to these children and invalidates the Saudi government's claims of human rights reform. Ali al-Nimr lost 10 years of his life—and almost lost his life altogether—due to an unjust prosecution that resulted in a death sentence. Sara and Omar Aljabri have spent the past year and a half of their lives in prison, with no end in sight of when they might be released, if ever. This is unacceptable by any standard and prohibited by international law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 1996.
These cases are not the only examples of children wrongfully detained in Saudi Arabia. We do not know the exact number of young Saudis in adult prisons for crimes they allegedly committed when they were not yet 18. But there are likely many of them. We do know of those children who were executed for their alleged "crimes," even though the Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits the use of the death penalty for children, a legal prohibition Saudi Arabia has agreed to uphold. The reality is undoubtedly even darker, as many of these children and young adults are tortured in prison, just like Ali al-Nimr, and then sentenced to death based on supposed "evidence" that their torture produced in the form of so-called "confessions."
Ali al-Nimr lost 10 years of his life—and almost lost his life altogether—due to an unjust prosecution that resulted in a death sentence. Sara and Omar Aljabri have spent the past year and a half of their lives in prison, with no end in sight of when they might be released, if ever.
- Sevag Kechichian
Followers of Ali al-Nimr's case are, of course, relieved and happy for him and his family after his release. Saudi security forces detained him without an arrest warrant on Feb. 14, 2012, when they were arbitrarily arresting people on the streets in the kingdom's Eastern Province on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising in neighboring Bahrain. They tortured Ali, breaking his jaw and causing him to urinate blood. They then handed him pieces of paper that contained his "confessions" handwritten by a security officer—and forced him to sign it without knowing what he was apparently confessing to. Ali's coerced "confessions" later became the sole evidence that Saudi prosecutors used to sentence him to death for haraba (violent theft), one of the most serious crimes in Saudi Arabia with a fixed punishment under Islamic law.
After years of denying the use of the death penalty for juveniles, Saudi authorities announced in March 2020 that they would stop this brutal practice. In October of the same year, they announced that they were finally commuting the death sentence of Ali al-Nimr and other juvenile "offenders." Around the same time as Ali al-Nimr's arrest, two other Saudis who were not yet 18, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon, were also arrested. Similar to Ali, they reported to human rights organizations that they were tortured and then sentenced to death based on their coerced "confessions." Both of them are still in prison, serving their own 10-year sentences. Similar to Ali al-Nimr, they were tried not in a juvenile court, but in Saudi Arabia's draconian Specialized Criminal Court, which handles "counterterrorism" cases and where anyone, child or adult, can be sentenced to death for anything, or nothing at all.
Releasing Ali al-Nimr 10 years after detaining and torturing him, and some seven years after sentencing him to death, is not "reform" or a human rights achievement for Saudi Arabia. He was found guilty of specious "crimes" without any evidence to support a conviction—which was exactly the case with his uncle, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution after a suspect trial caused public outrage and widespread condemnation across the region.
Children should never be used as pawns to punish their parents or families, nor as bargaining chips between political opponents.
- Sevag Kechichian
Late last month, Saad Aljabri, a former senior Saudi intelligence official, appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes and detailed how Saudi authorities are detaining his teenage children to punish him for being on the wrong side of the palace coup that led to Mohammed bin Salman usurping the title of crown prince from his older cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef. Under bin Nayef, Aljabri rose to the rank of major general in the Interior Ministry and served as a key interlocutor to U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials. Regardless of their father's past or present, Saudi authorities should immediately release Sara and Omar Aljabri, who were days away from pursuing their education in the United States when they were detained. On March 9, 2020, Maj. Gen. Salah al-Jutaili of Saudi State Security requested to see Sara and Omar Aljabri in his office in Riyadh. One week later, al-Jutaili had both teenagers detained to pressure their father to return to the kingdom. They have remain in prison ever since, despite a rare public rebuke by the State Department under the Trump administration in August 2020 calling for the Saudi government to release them.
These are just a few of the cases we know of. Human rights organizations, such as the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, have documented others. Yet we might never hear of all the young Saudis similarly held hostage behind bars.
If Saudi Arabia were actually serious about human rights reform, it would release all those children and other wrongfully detained young Saudis, giving them back their basic rights. It would also uphold its legal obligation to abolish the use of the death penalty against minors. Children should never be used as pawns to punish their parents or families, nor as bargaining chips between political opponents. The real test of just governance in Saudi Arabia is to ensure that this cruel practice never happens again.