In Depth

Saudi Arabia ends executions of minors: what’s behind the move?

Kingdom to commute sentences of convicts facing death for offences committed under the age of 18

Saudi Arabia is to abolish the death penalty for citizens who commit crimes as minors, the kingdom’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) has announced.

In a statement released on Sunday, HRC President Awwad Alawwad said that under a new royal decree, the punishment will be replaced with “a prison sentence of no longer than ten years in a juvenile detention facility”.  

The move will help Saudi Arabia establish “a more modern penal code and demonstrates the kingdom’s commitment to following through on key reforms”, he added.

What is Saudi Arabia’s record on capital punishment?

The Middle Eastern nation has faced widespread criticism in recent years over its human rights record.

Last week, Amnesty International released a damning report that says the Saudi authorities executed a record 184 people in 2019 - a 23% year-on-year increase. At least one case involved a man convicted of a crime committed when he was a minor, according to the rights group.

Only China and Iran execute more people annually.

Saudi Arabia retains the death penalty for offences including rape, sedition, adultery, drug trafficking and “sorcery”, as well as murder, under a legal system based on Sharia law and fundamentalist Wahhabism. 

International protests against the executions - most of which take the form of public beheadings - have been fuelled by concerns about the fairness of trials in the kingdom.

The Sun say that trials at which defendants have been sentenced to death are “reported to have lasted a day and confessions extracted under torture”.

Saudi Arabia “has no written penal code and no code of criminal procedure and judicial procedure”, the newspaper notes, adding: “The only means of appeal is directly to the king, who decides whether the condemned lives or dies.” 

What about the new decree?

Saudi King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have given the green light to halt the death penalty for crimes committed by minors “as the kingdom seeks to blunt criticism over its human rights record”, says The Guardian.

Capital punishment for crimes committed by people aged under 18 runs contrary to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Saudi Arabia has ratified.

Announcing the decision to abolish the death penalty, HRC boss Alawwad promised that “more reforms will be coming”.

However, it remains unclear when the executions ban will come into effect. 

The announcement came “just two days after the kingdom, in effect, abolished flogging as punishment, in a decision made by the General Commission for the Supreme Court”, reports Al Jazeera

Flogging had been mandatory as a form of corporal punishment for offences including breach of peace, homosexuality, consumption or possession of alcohol, adultery and pestering girls. The penalty will be replaced by prison sentences or fines.

Alawwad hailed the reform as “a momentous step forward in Saudi Arabia’s human rights agenda”.

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What next?

The royal decree is expected to save the lives of at least six men from the country’s minority Shia community who were convicted of taking part in anti-government protests while aged under 18, during the Arab Spring uprisings.

UN human rights experts appealed to the kingdom last year to halt plans to execute them.

The decree should also benefit the wider Saudi Shia community, members of which are disproportionately likely to be handed death sentences.

As Al Jazeera reports, in April 2019, the kingdom beheaded 37 men convicted of “terrorism” charges. The UN human rights chief said at the time that almost all of them were Shia Muslims who may not have had fair trials - and that at least three were minors when sentenced.

Campaigners hope that in a further bid to strengthen international ties, more reforms are being planned by Crown Prince bin Salman, who is “seen as the force behind the kingdom’s loosening of restrictions and its pivot away from ultraconservative interpretations of Islamic law”, reports Voice of America.

“The crown prince has sought to modernise the country, attract foreign investment and revamp Saudi Arabia’s reputation globally,” says the Washington D.C.-based news site - but adds that he has also “overseen a parallel crackdown on liberals, women’s rights activists, writers, moderate clerics and reformers”.

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