The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as part of its modernization program, has banned the death penalty for crimes committed by minors. The decision made by King Salman followed the announcement that flogging will also be banned. Capital punishment is a long-standing practice in the kingdom, with it being part of Sharia law. Executions occur following the religious law and are usually beheadings performed using a sword and sometimes followed by the crucifixion of the body.
Capital offenses usually are a result of crimes such as rape, terrorism, and drug smuggling, although, those committing other crimes such as blasphemy, adultery, and homosexuality can also face the same punishment. For adultery, in particular, the execution is conducted through stoning with the witnesses being responsible to initiate it. It is yet unknown when the decision will go into effect.
The ban came a week after the publication of an Amnesty International report showcasing record numbers of executions in Saudi Arabia. The number of executions for 2019 was 184.
The president of the State Commission Awwad Alawwad has said: “The decree helps us in establishing a more modern penal code”, about the ban. Meanwhile, the senior director for research in Amnesty international Clare Algar has characterized the rise in execution in KSA as “an alarming development”. The Crown Prince has been credited for all modernizing reforms, as part of his 2030 vision to modernize the Saudi economy and culture.
The abolition of executions for minors is a very welcome step towards greater civil liberties in a country where the practice is so well established. Of course, we cannot expect an imminent abolition of all capital punishment, however, the Saudi government and Royal Family is moving in the right direction. An idealistic idea perhaps would be to expect them to further limit the practice or even abolish it for certain victimless crimes such as apostasy and homosexuality.
Despite all the negative publicity the Crown Prince has been receiving recently, there is no denying that he is making meaningful reforms in the state, that are allowing it to become more progressive and inclusive. At the same time, it is clear that dissent and critics are being silenced, often brutally. Superficial, top-down modernization in a strict and fundamentalist state and society is a double-edged sword.
The country is one of the signatories of The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which it ratified in 1996. Since then, the kingdom has been strongly and repeatedly criticized for its use of capital punishment against minors, an action that is strictly forbidden under the convention. Human rights came under scrutiny following the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey at the end of 2018. This, along with the modernizing policies brought about by the Crown Prince over the past few years, has brought attention to its track record in regards to human rights.
In summary, executions for crimes committed by minors will be halted in an, as of yet, unknown time frame. This development is extremely positive and a great step towards human rights in the country and region as a whole. This, however, does not necessarily mean that further changes are imminent and thus activists and organizations should still push for a total ban or limitation on the practice.