Despite Saudi Reforms, Rights Group Says Many Still Face Death Penalty for Crimes Committed While Minors

80 percent of people in death penalty trials as minors still at risk of execution, a year after Saudi Arabia announced major reforms to the criminal code

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, in 2018.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, in 2018. Credit: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court via Reuters

Anti-death penalty group Reprieve said on Friday that 80 percent of those on trial in Saudi Arabia for crimes that carry the death penalty and that were allegedly committed while minors still face execution despite reforms announced in 2020.

Saudi authorities said last year they would stop sentencing to death any individuals who committed crimes while minors and would apply this retroactively.

However, the March 2020 royal decree announcing this was not reported by state media or published in the official gazette as would be normal practice. Human rights groups and Western lawmakers have raised concerns about its implementation.

Asked whether the decree applied to all types of crimes, the state-backed Human Rights Commission told Reuters in February the ban only applied to a lesser category of offence under Islamic law known as "ta'zeer."

This would mean judges can therefore still sentence child offenders to death under the other two categories, according to Saudi Arabia's interpretation of sharia: "houdoud", or serious crimes that carry a prescribed punishment, including terrorism, and "qisas," or retribution, usually for murder.

In a communication to the United Nations published on Thursday, Saudi authorities confirmed that the royal decree only applies to cases of "ta'zeer".

The Saudi government media office did not respond to a request for comment on the case.

By Reprieve's count, 10 people are currently at risk of execution in the kingdom: seven were charged with houdoud offences and one with a qisas offense. Only two of them would be covered by the royal decree's protections.

"When eight out of 10 people facing the death penalty for childhood crimes remain at risk of execution, it's hard to see how anything has changed, despite all the promises of progress and reform," Reprieve Director Maya Foa said.

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