Maya Foa is director of the legal charity Reprieve. She was named a World Economic Forum young global leader in 2018 and was a 2015 Soros justice fellow.
The charge sheet of a child sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia can be a grimly fascinating read. Alongside whichever manufactured “terrorism” offenses the teenager has “confessed” to after being subjected to electric shocks or beaten with metal bars, prosecutors often list some more revealing reasons for their detention.
Murtaja Qureiris, the youngest child facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, is accused of expressing political opinions, shouting demands for rights and using a loudspeaker at demonstrations. He has also been charged with making Molotov cocktails, possessing a gun and barricading streets with burning tires — between the ages of 10 and 13. This can all be distilled to a single ever-present charge: disobeying the ruler.
In the video recently published by CNN, Qureiris is a goofy 10-year-old, cycling with a gang of kids through the streets of Qatif to protest against the regime. He was later arrested and has spent more than four years in pretrial detention. His youthful protests have been reframed as membership of a “terrorist organization.” Prosecutors are seeking a sentence of crucifixion, meaning his body will be put on public display after he is beheaded.
The case against the now-18-year-old is chillingly familiar. Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have repeatedly shown that they will use capital punishment to crush political dissent — and clearly believe they have impunity to do so.
Executing a child is one of the most severe violations of international law imaginable. In response to United Nations criticism, authorities have claimed Saudi Arabia’s Juvenile Code limits sentences against children to 10 years in prison, but their actions flatly contradict this.
Four of the 47 victims of a mass execution in January 2016 were minors at the time of their alleged offenses. At least three of the 37 men executed in April of this year were juveniles, too: Mujtaba al-Sweikat, Abdulkarim al-Hawaj and Salman Qureish. Three more young men who were detained as children remain on death row, at imminent risk of execution: Abdullah al-Zaher, Dawood al-Marhoon and Ali al-Nimr.
This is systematic abuse. All were arrested without a warrant following protests in Eastern Province in 2012 during the Arab Spring. All were held in incommunicado detention for long periods. All were tortured into making a false confession that formed the case against them, in the absence of physical evidence. None had pretrial access to a lawyer.
In trials at Saudi Arabia’s notorious Specialized Criminal Court — a fortified courtroom that is a forbidding place for any defendant, let alone a frightened teenager — they described being tortured, and recanted their confessions, but the judge paid no heed.
Mujtaba al-Sweikat was arrested at King Fahd International Airport, in front of his family, on his way to Western Michigan University. His captors burned him with cigarettes, beat him with wires and hoses, hung him from his hands and left him naked in a freezing cell. “The interrogator dictated the confession … and forced him to sign it so that the torture would stop,” his father told the court.
In a similar case, after a round-the-clock beating, 17-year-old Dawood al-Marhoon signed a blank sheet of paper that prosecutors later filled in.
The facts of these cases are well known thanks to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions. In January 2017, the group published a report about a minor whose date of birth and date of arrest correspond with those of Murtaja Qureiris. It concluded he had been tortured to extract a confession after he attended peaceful protests.
The harsh truth is that the Saudi regime couldn’t care less. It pays lip service to international norms, falsely claiming the death penalty is reserved for serious violent crimes, when in fact 74 percent of those executed this year were convicted of nonviolent offences, according to our tracking of Saudi executions. When the brazen murder of journalist and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi comes with no meaningful consequences, the reasons for this sense of impunity are clear.
The U.S. State Department did not condemn April’s executions, instead urging the Saudi government to respect the due process rights it has consistently disregarded. President Trump responded in predictable style — by boasting of shaking the Saudis down and making no mention of human rights.
On his U.S. charm offensive in April 2018, in between meetings with Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, the crown prince told Time magazine he had “tried to minimize” the use of the death penalty. In fact, the reverse is the case: Our tracking suggests that Saudi Arabia has executed at least 113 people this year and is on pace to break its own bloody record of 157 executions in 2015.
Unless the kingdom’s Western allies belatedly make it clear that executing children will not be tolerated, Dawood al-Marhoon, Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher or Murtaja Qureiris could be next.