10/30/2020, 13.02
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Saudi justice reform falls short as the death penalty is still inflicted on minors

In April, King Salman cancelled capital punishment for minors, but Saudi prosecutors continue to demand it. For Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia uses "spin doctors" to claim progress that has yet to materialise. In one case, one of the accused was nine at the time of the alleged crime.

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – Saudi prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty in cases involving minors even though the practice was cancelled  for crimes committed before the age of 18, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports.

According to the human rights advocacy group, Saudi prosecutors recently called for the execution of eight people, accused of offences of opinion and protest-related crimes. In one case the accused was only nine at the time of the alleged crime.

Last April, King Salman issued a royal decree ending death sentences for crimes committed by minors, imposing instead a maximum sentence of 10 years in a juvenile detention facility. However, the decree has not yet taken effect, and rights groups warn that the death penalty is still in place.

Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Saudi Arabia has signed, the death penalty is outlawed for crimes committed by minors.

Overall, the Wahhabi kingdom has one of the worst human rights records in the world with violations committed mainly by its police and security forces.

Human Rights Watch recently obtained and analysed the charge sheets for two group trials that included the eight men in 2019.

Some of the crimes listed were allegedly committed when the defendants were aged 14 to 17. One of them, now 18, is charged for a nonviolent crime he allegedly committed when he was 9. All eight men have been in pretrial detention for up to two years.

“Saudi spin doctors are marketing judicial reforms as progress,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. But the reality is very different since “prosecutors appear to blatantly ignore them and carry on as usual”.

For Page, “If Saudi Arabia is serious about reforming its criminal justice system, it should start by banning the death penalty against alleged child offenders in all cases.”

In the case of the eight on trial, the prosecutor, who responds directly to the monarch, has levelled charges that do not resemble recognisable crimes, such as “seeking to destabilise the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” “chanting slogans hostile to the regime,” and “seeking to incite discord and division.”

All of the accused are from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where most of the country’s persecuted Shia minority live.

What is more, the new decree does not apply to qisas (retributive justice offences, usually for murder) or hudud crimes, serious crimes defined under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law that carry specific penalties.

Sources told HRW that two of the defendants, al-Nimr and al-Faraj, were denied legal counsel and tortured during questioning at the start of their detention.

Last year, Saudi Arabia executed 37 people in a mass execution. One of them was a minor at the time.

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