Press release

Empty Saudi claims on death penalty for children exposed

In a communication to the United Nations (UN) published on April 8, 2021, Saudi Arabian authorities confirm that the Kingdom’s claims to have abolished the death penalty for childhood crimes are untrue.

In its response to the UN Special Procedures, the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia states that hudud and qisas offences are excluded from the 2018 Juvenile Law and the royal decree announced in 2020, supposedly eliminating the death penalty for minors.

All ten people currently at risk of execution for childhood crimes in Saudi Arabia were originally charged with hudud offences. Prosecutors can still seek death sentences against children by charging them with hudud or qisas offences. This stands in stark contrast to years of public statements from the authorities claiming to have eliminated capital punishment for minors.

  • In September 2016, Saudi Arabia’s delegation to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child stated that “there is no application of the death penalty on children.”
  • In August 2018, promoting the Juvenile Law, the Kingdom’s delegation told the UN: “if the crime committed by the juvenile is punishable by death, the sentence shall be reduced to a term of not more than ten years detention.”
  • On April 23, 2019, Saudi Arabia executed 37 people in a single day, including at least six who were minors at the time of their alleged offences. Their families have not received the bodies, despite multiple requests for their return so they can receive a proper burial.
  • In April 2020, the Saudi Human Rights Commission (SHRC) announced a royal decree clarifying and extending the Juvenile Law. Although the decree has not been published, the SHRC has made several public statements asserting that it applies to all juvenile offenders. In October 2020, it insisted that “no-one in Saudi Arabia will be executed for a crime committed as a minor.”
  • In February 2021, the Saudi authorities told the UN Human Rights Council that “anyone who commits a death eligible crime as a child” will be subject to “a maximum sentence of ten years in a juvenile institution”.

Abdullah al Howaiti was arrested when he was 14 years old, held without access to a lawyer or his family for four months, and tortured into confessing to robbery and murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death when he was 17, even though he had an alibi confirmed by CCTV footage and multiple eyewitnesses, showing that he was not present when the crime was committed. Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court is currently reviewing his sentence.

Reprieve Director Maya Foa said: “It is especially galling to hear the Saudi authorities claim, again and again, that they have stopped executing children, when Abdullah al Howaiti is sitting on death row, fearing for his life. It’s hard to see how anything has changed, despite all the promises of progress and reform.”

Ali al-Dubisi, Director of the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, said: “How many times must the Saudi government be caught in a lie before the international community stops believing them? They told us they would stop executing children in 2016, then turned around and killed six in 2019. In April, August and October last year, and as recently as February to the United Nations, they assured us that this time, it would be different. Now we learn it’s the same old story. You either execute children, or you don’t. So which is it?”