On August 26th, the Saudi Arabian Human Rights Commission announced it would judicially review three juvenile capital punishment cases. The cases pertain to three minors, Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher, and Dawoud al-Marhoon, all of whom were convicted in 2014, when they were under 18. The judicial review announcement follows Saudi Arabia’s April decree to halt capital punishment for juvenile defenders, an attempt to reinvent the country’s infamous human rights record.
The halting of capital punishment against child offenders is part of a 2030 human rights reform strategy initiated by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. In a statement, Saudi authorities said, “Human rights are a key pillar of the Vision 2030 platform for transformation.” However, many question the reform’s legitimacy, considering the state’s past human rights record. A recent article by Human Rights Watch wrote, “Saudi human rights pronouncements count for little: the government has assassinated critics, persecuted women’s rights advocates, mistreated migrant workers, and committed countless laws-of-war violations against civilians in Yemen.”
As a result, the sudden announcement of a positive human rights transformation seems more likely to be a ploy to repair Saudi Arabia’s image abroad before it becomes more damaging to their international relations. Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Regional Director, Heba Morayef, says that “while [the new initiative] represents a significant step for Saudi Arabia if implemented, the country’s continued use of the death penalty reached a shocking high last year with 184 recorded executions.”
The circumstances under which the three juvenile capital punishment cases were treated adds to Saudi Arabia’s notorious past. Al-Nimr, al-Zaher, and al-Marhoon were all between 15 and 17 years old when they were arrested in connection with demonstrations held in 2011 during the Arab Spring. (The protests were held in response to the systemic governmental discrimination Shia Muslims face within Saudi Arabia, a majority Sunni Muslim nation.) Human Rights Watch reports that the boys were “held incommunicado and detained without charge or trial for up to 22 months.” Lawyers for both al-Zaher and al-Marhoon have said the boys were beaten and threatened into signing confessions under duress. Moreover, one of al-Marhoon’s relatives reported that the boy was severely beaten, to the point that he had trouble speaking and eating. The confessions, said to have been written by interrogators, confess that the boys threw Molotov cocktails at police during the 2011 demonstrations. However, there is no evidence of police injuries from these alleged attacks.
All three juveniles were sentenced to death in 2014. On May 27th, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Ali al-Nimr to capital punishment under a list of charges that included anti-government protesting, attacking police officers, possessing a machine-gun, and armed robbery. Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawoud al-Marhoon were later sentenced that October under similar charges. All the convictions were based heavily on the confessions the three minors made under duress. Al-Nimr reported his mistreatment in his court hearings. However, the judge claimed that he had asked the Ministry of the Interior about the matter and was satisfied enough with their response to not investigate.
Saudi Arabia should immediately cease capital punishment as a national practice. All current capital cases should be halted until thorough investigations can be enacted on the state’s widespread judicial corruption. Judicial review into such cases should allow outside observation, either by international organizations such as the United Nations Human Rights Council or global criminal justice and human rights advocacy groups, to confirm these cases’ legality. If Saudi Arabia’s desire to have a strong human rights record by 2030 is authentic, capital punishment must be removed as a legal practice within the state.
Currently, 55 of the 195 states represented in the United Nations use capital punishment. The practice is a grave violation of the most basic human right: the right to life. No country should have the legal power to rob a citizen of their life, regardless of the crime they have committed. States which advocate non-violence between citizens should not enforce this ideology with threats of execution. Amnesty International’s report, “Does the Death Penalty Deter Crime,” finds that “evidence from around the world has shown that the death penalty has no unique deterrent effect on crime.” This debasing practice creates a violent cycle which neither solves violence-based crimes at their core nor has any proof of decreasing criminal behavior within a population. Therefore, it makes little sense to keep it as a prominent factor in the Saudi Arabian justice system. Instead of deterring crime, capital punishment creates opportunities for corruption, giving a state the ability to execute and permanently silence those who oppose it.
Furthermore, the Saudi Arabian government should open an investigation into the claims of forced confession through torture in al-Nimr, al-Zaher, and al-Marhoon’s interrogations. If the defendants’ alleged police beatings are found to have happened in fact, then their confessions should be recognized as signed under duress and invalid in a court of law. These boys have a right to a retrial. Additionally, investigators involved in the alleged beatings should be removed from their positions at the Ministry of the Interior and criminally charged according to their involvement.
Charging the investigators would set a precedent for a strong Saudi commitment to fair trials. Making known the legal consequences for inducing a confession under torture could dissuade interrogators from behaving similarly in future cases. Moreover, evidence must be produced in a court of law if the Criminal Court intends to argue that the boys committed intended violence against Saudi security forces.
Until such basic legal requirements are met, and the three minors are given their fundamental right to a fair trial, then countries that trade with Saudi Arabia should enact sanctions against the state to force appropriate action. However, many of Saudi Arabia’s trading partners, including China, Japan, India, South Korea, and the United States, carry capital punishment as a legal penalty. If these countries enacted sanctions, it would call their own use of the death penalty into question, making it highly unlikely for them to act.
Human rights advocacy groups and the international community at large must push to abolish capital punishment, not just in Saudi Arabia, but globally. A global system of naming and shaming countries which carry the death penalty could result in ending the practice for good.