Saudi Arabia has ordered an end to the death penalty for crimes committed by minors, according to the country’s Human Rights Commission.
The decision comes two days after the kingdom said it would ban the practice of flogging, replacing it with jail time, fines or community service, thereby bringing one of the country’s most controversial forms of public punishment to a close.
Citing a royal decree by King Salman, the latest announcement orders prosecutors to review cases and replace executions with a maximum penalty of 10 years in a juvenile detention centre.
The 10-year maximum applies to all crimes by minors, with the possible exception of terrorism-related offences.
Human Rights Watch said dozens of people could potentially be taken off death row, but warned it was difficult to determine whether the new law would be applied to those adults who had allegedly committed crimes while under the age of 18.
“This has to be applied retroactively, to people on death row right now who were sentenced when they were minors,” Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at HRW, told The Independent.
It was not immediately clear when the new law would come into effect.
“The decree helps us in establishing a more modern penal code and demonstrates the kingdom’s commitment to following through on key reforms,” said Awwad Alawwad, president of the state-backed Human Rights Commission, in a statement published on Sunday.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s biggest executioners after Iran and China, Amnesty International said in its latest annual report, and has one of the worst human rights records.
The kingdom executed 184 people in 2019, including at least one person charged with a crime committed as a 16-year-old. Abdulkareem al-Hawaj was found guilty of offences related to his participation in anti-government protests. Such activity carries terrorism-related charges in the kingdom for disturbing order and disobeying the ruler.
At least three men who were children at the time of their alleged offences were among the 37 victims of a mass execution in April last year, according to human rights group Reprieve.
Activists met the latest decree with ”cautious optimism”, having long called for a “complete overhaul” of the kingdom’s justice system.
“I hesitate to give them too much praise,” added Mr Coogle. “This isn’t the completion of the justice sector reform, this is just the beginning. There’s a long way way to go if this new decree sticks.”
Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, told The Independent: “These will be nothing more than empty words as long as child defendants remain on death row. Mohammed Bin Salman has been promising to ‘minimise’ the death penalty for years, but the Kingdom continues to execute people convicted of attending demonstrations while they were still in school.
“The Saudi regime assured the UK Government they would not execute Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher four years ago [all sentenced to death when they were children], but they remain at risk of execution. If the Saudis are serious about reform, their death sentences should be commuted immediately.”
Capital punishment for crimes committed by people under the age of 18 runs contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Saudi Arabia has signed.
King Salman‘s son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has tried to be regarded as a modernising force in Saudi Arabia, having helped lift the driving ban on women in 2017 and spearheaded efforts to open up the country to foreign investment.
However, the crown prince has also overseen a parallel crackdown on liberals, women’s rights activists, writers, moderate clerics and reformers. The 2018 killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by agents who worked for the crown prince drew sharp criticism internationally.
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