Saudi Arabia Commutes Death Penalty for Young Shi'ite to 10 Years in Prison

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending a video conference in Riyadh
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending a video conference in RiyadhCredit: Bandar Al-Jaloud / Saudi Royal Palace / AFP

A young Saudi Shi'ite Muslim sentenced to death for an offence committed when he was a minor has had the punishment in his high-profile case reduced to 10 years in prison, his family said on Sunday.

Ali Al-Nimr, the nephew of a prominent Shi'ite cleric whose 2016 execution sparked demonstrations in Saudi Arabia and Iran, was 17 when he was detained in February 2012 on charges related to participating in protests in the country's Eastern Province.

The state-backed Human Rights Commission (HRC) told Reuters time served would apply, and Nimr's release date has been set for 2022.

"Freedom soon, God willing," his mother said in a Facebook post celebrating the news.

Along with Dawood al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher, 17 and 15 when they were arrested, Nimr was sentenced to death by the Specialized Criminal Court and faced beheading. Since his arrest, he has served more than nine years behind bars.

The government's Center for International Communications (CIC) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The new sentence comes more than five months after the Saudi public prosecutor ordered a review of the death penalties issued against all three individuals.

The review followed a royal decree in 2020 which ruled that individuals sentenced to death for crimes committed while minors will no longer face capital punishment and would instead serve up to 10 years in juvenile detention centres.

However, the decree was never carried on state media nor published in the official gazette as would be normal practice. Human rights groups and western lawmakers had raised concerns about its implementation, as Nimr and four other juvenile offenders had yet to have their death sentences revoked.

One of the five has appealed and eight others originally detained as minors still face charges that could result in execution, rights groups who follow the cases closely, told Reuters in January.

The HRC on Sunday reiterated that the royal decree would be applied retroactively to all cases where an individual was sentenced to death for offences committed under the age of 18.

Anti-death penalty charity Reprieve welcomed the news, but cautioned that the kingdom should ensure the decree was applied to all juvenile offenders.

"True change isn't about a few high-profile cases; it means making sure no-one is ever sentenced to death for a childhood 'crime' again in Saudi Arabia," said Reprieve director Maya Foa.

Although Saudi Arabia executed a record 185 people in 2019, the state-backed Human Rights Commission said in January that the kingdom had reduced the number of executions by 85% in 2020 compared with the previous year, noting it had documented 27. (Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Writing by Raya Jalabi; Editing by William Maclean and Alexander Smith)

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