At least nine young Saudis who were juveniles at the times of their alleged crimes currently face imminent execution in Saudi Arabia—despite the fact that Saudi authorities supposedly eliminated or otherwise severely limited the scope of the death penalty for juvenile offenders in recent years. One of these nine young Saudis on death row was only 12 years old at the time of his alleged crime.
Their looming executions fly in the face of a royal decree in 2020 abolishing the death penalty for most crimes committed when defendants were minors. That decree followed the Juvenile Law introduced in 2018, which had set a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for anyone under the age of 18 convicted of most crimes that previously came with the death penalty.
The court documents of these nine juvenile offenders, which were reviewed by DAWN, reveal that Saudi judges are more concerned with handing down harsh sentences than upholding justice and abiding by legal reforms. Instead of complying with the Juvenile Law, judges are still sentencing minors to death by brazenly overlooking their birthdates and the dates of their so-called crimes. They apparently received the message when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, ordered the arrest of nine judges—later increased to 10—in April 2022 and put them all on trial at the country's notorious terrorism court for being too lenient in their sentences—or what was deemed "complacency toward state security criminals" and "high treason."
The nine young men on death row are all Shi'a Muslims, and all but one are accused of participating in anti-government protests and committing "terrorist" acts. Their prosecution and death sentences partly followed the very old playbook of Saudi criminal trials. Court documents show that the authorities sentenced these young men to death after grossly unfair trials. The only evidence the court presented against them was their confessions, which all of them claimed were extracted from them by torture and deception.
Saudi judges are more concerned with handing down harsh sentences than upholding justice—sentencing minors to death by brazenly overlooking their birthdates and the dates of their so-called crimes.
- Sevag Kechichian
Abdullah al-Darazi is one of the nine young men. Saudi security forces arrested him in 2014 when he was 18 years old, mostly for taking part in protests against the state's treatment of Shi'a citizens in al-Qatif, in eastern Saudi Arabia, accusing him of crimes that he allegedly committed when he was a minor. They reportedly tortured him to confess to, among other things, forming a "terrorist cell" and committing acts of "terrorism." Abdullah told the judge that the security officer interrogating him showed up one day and tricked him into signing documents, claiming they were for his release and explaining that they had discovered he was actually innocent. That's how Abdullah's signature ended up on a document containing his false confessions to committing a crime as a minor that he, in fact, had nothing to do with.
In May, al-Darazi's family wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, pleading with the State Department to intervene in his case. "Saudi Arabia's government is deaf to our cries but it will listen to you," their letter said. Six human rights organizations followed up with a joint letter to Blinken on the eve of his visit to Saudi Arabia in early June, urging him to press Saudi authorities not to execute al-Darazi and another juvenile offender on death row, Youssef al-Manasif. It's unclear if Blinken raised their cases with Saudi officials while he was in Riyadh.
While executing juveniles and adults based solely on confessions extracted under torture or through deception is a long-standing practice in Saudi Arabia, recent court documents reveal additional steps Saudi authorities are taking to secure dubious convictions for juvenile offenders. Many court documents are now excluding the defendant's date of birth, which previous court documents would add at first mention of the defendant's name, typically on the first page. The court documents of two of the nine young Saudis facing execution—Jawad Qureiris, dated Nov. 5, 2022, and Hasan al-Faraj, dated Nov. 3, 2022—do not include their birth dates or those of the other co-defendants.
Similarly, recent court documents no longer refer to the date on which a defendant is accused of committing a crime. Previously, Saudi court documents often, but not always, referred to the exact dates of events and incidents for which the judge sentenced a person to a specific punishment. Al-Darazi's court documents, for example, do not specify the dates of his alleged crimes. In cases such as his, these dates would clearly reveal that the defendant was under the age of 18 at the time. The removal of dates of birth and alleged crime dates remove this possibility.
Legal reforms in Saudi Arabia are meaningless under such arbitrary rule. Saudi judges under MBS are more interested in saving their own necks than implementing Saudi laws.
- Sevag Kechichian
But it doesn't end here. Saudi judges are circumventing the legal amendments introduced by the Juvenile Law and by the royal decree of 2020 and handing down death sentences to juvenile offenders for crimes punishable under what is known under Islamic law as Ta'zir. Ta'zir punishments are for crimes that do not have set punishments in Shari'a; the 2018 law specifically prohibits the use of the death penalty for juvenile offenders in Ta'zir cases. The severity of punishments for crimes punishable under Ta'zir are typically left to the judge to decide, unless otherwise specified by law. They are unlike those under Hadd or Hudud—punishments for what are considered crimes against God, such as apostasy, highway robbery, theft, adultery, etc.—for which Shari'a prescribes fixed punishments according to the Quran or the Hadith and also prohibits the use of coerced confessions as evidence.
The Saudi prosecution accused al-Darazi of various crimes, some of which are punishable under Hudud and others under Ta'zir. Some of these alleged offenses occurred when al-Darazi clearly was under the age of 18, others when he was just over 18. The court documents do not mention the dates on which al-Darazi supposedly committed any of these crimes. Since al-Darazi told the judge that he was tortured and misled to sign the "confession" that formed the only evidence for all of his "crimes," the judge could not sentence him to death under Hudud, because Shari'a clearly prohibits the use of the death penalty under Hudud where the evidence is based on confessions that the defendant claims he was coerced to make.
But the judge seemed keen to sentence al-Darazi to death, even if he could not do so under Hudud. He also could not sentence al-Darazi to death as a juvenile "offender" under Ta'zir, because the Juvenile Law clearly prohibits it. Instead, he sentenced al-Darazi to death under Ta'zir as an adult offender by conveniently leaving out the dates of his alleged offenses.
As al-Darazi's case and the other examples reveal, legal reforms in Saudi Arabia are meaningless under such arbitrary rule. Leaving out dates of birth and alleged crimes from court documents, and playing elaborate legal gymnastics to circumvent laws and sentence so many young Saudis to death, indicate that Saudi judges under MBS are more interested in saving their own necks than implementing Saudi laws. After all, "high treason"—what MBS had the 10 former judges accused of for being too lenient in their sentences—is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.