Saudi Arabia Ends Death Penalty For Crimes Committed By Minors

On 27 April, Saudi Arabia’s state-backed Human Rights Commission issued a statement signaling an end to the use of the death penalty for crimes committed by minors. According to the BBC, this announcement supported the earlier decree by King Salman and came two days after Saudi Arabia banned discretionary flogging. 

In the past, Amnesty International, the largest human rights organization in the world, has called on Saudi Arabia to “totally abolish the death penalty.” This new policy does not achieve such a goal but, according to Awwad Alawwad, the president of the Human Rights Commission, “the decree helps us [Saudi Arabia] in establishing a more modern penal code.” Though Amnesty International has recognized the change as a positive, particularly since Saudi Arabia will now adhere to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the organization takes issue with some aspects of the decree.

In a statement, Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Regional Director, said, “while this 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.” Ending the execution of minors would have had no impact on these numbers. 

In 2019, Saudi Arabian courts sentenced 184 people to death, the highest number on record, according to Amnesty International. The year before, reported Al Jazeera, Saudia Arabia executed 149 people, indicating a significant increase in the use of the death penalty. The BBC writes that criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has escalated after King Salman named Prince Mohammad bin Salman crown prince in 2017. However, the prince has made efforts “aimed at modernizing the conservative kingdom, which has no codified system of law to go with the texts making up Islamic law.” These efforts starkly contrast the increased use of the death penalty last year. 

Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Research, Advocacy and Policy, said in a statement “Saudi Arabia’s growing use of the death penalty, including as a weapon against political dissidents, is an alarming development.” Algar suggests that executions have been used to silence individuals who have criticized or threatened the government. Just over half of those executed in 2019 were foreign nationals. 

The death penalty has also reportedly been used to silence “dissidents from Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a Muslim minority.” In late April of last year Saudi Arabia executed 37 people convicted of “terrorism” charges, some of whom confessed after being tortured. These executions garnered widespread condemnation from human rights groups, among others. 

Importantly, the royal decree that will end the execution of minors still allows for abuse. Amnesty International reported that Saudi Arabia replaced all “discretionary” flogging with fines and/or jail time before ending the execution of minors. However, it is unclear if this change applies to “mandatory” flogging for offenses as dictated by Sharia law. This most recent royal decree entails similar qualifications. Crimes that violate counter-terror law still carry the death penalty for minors. Like the execution of Shi’a Muslims last year, Amnesty International argues that there is documented misuse of this counter-terror law and, critically, this law has been used to “criminalize peaceful expression of views.” Notably, Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon, Shi’a Muslims arrested while under 18, were tried before the Specialized Criminal Court and executed. 

This royal decree places no checks on adult execution and still allows for the execution of minors depending on circumstance. Additionally, since the courts have had a history of unfair trials, particularly the Specialized Criminal Court, it is unlikely that this change presents a real attempt at reform. Rather, it seems that the decree will do little, if anything, to stymie the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.