The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saudi Arabia promised to stop executions for crimes committed as a juvenile, but has it?

An honor guard member in Washington is covered by the flag of Saudi Arabia in March 2018. (Cliff Owen/AP)

BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia in 2020 seemed to have put behind it a long-criticized tradition of using the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles, but an execution over the summer has cast doubt on this particular reform.

In 2020, the country's own Human Rights Commission appeared to finally announce a ban on the practice, saying that "no one in Saudi Arabia will be executed for a crime committed as a minor, in accordance with the Royal Order of March 2020."

Except that royal order never materialized. Then, in June, Mustafa al-Darwish was executed, earning the kingdom a stern rebuke from the United Nations. Four U.N. human rights officials wrote in a letter that Darwish reportedly was under 18 when he committed his alleged offenses, which included joining anti-government protests.

This apparent violation of the country’s own policy, however, is murky because the Arabic version of the supposedly landmark commission statement differs from the English one and bans the juvenile death penalty only for nonviolent crimes such as drug offenses.

“Their statements addressing the West are different from that domestically,” said Taha al-Hajji, a Saudi lawyer and legal consultant for the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR).

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Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom has engaged in a wide-ranging campaign to burnish its image abroad, addressing many of the areas on which it has been criticized, including religious intolerance, women's rights and its opaque judicial system.

As many critics of the Saudi government see it, a pattern has emerged in which major changes are announced for international audiences but then do not materialize.

The June execution of Darwish for crimes he allegedly committed as a juvenile appears to show that the judicial system is operating unchanged, regardless of announcements from the Human Rights Commission.

Saudi Arabia’s legal system has traditionally relied on judges’ interpretations of religious texts, a practice that lends itself to a wide divergence in rulings. It has come under heavy criticism from both human rights advocates and foreign investors seeking a predictable legal environment. Under the crown prince, there has been an effort to codify Saudi law for more consistency.

While the announcement by the Human Rights Commission was not officially backed up by a royal order, authorities have commuted the sentences of at least three Saudis facing execution for crimes committed as juveniles, although others remain on death row.

On June 15, Darwish’s family found out from news reports that their 26-year-old son had been executed. They had received no prior notice, according to ESOHR.

Darwish was accused of attempting to kill security officers and firing at security patrols, according to his charge sheet, reviewed by The Washington Post. The charges also included “seeking to destabilize the social fabric” by participating in protests; receiving phone messages about planned protests; making and using molotov cocktails; gun possession; and covering up for accomplices.

None of the alleged offenses carries a date. The charge sheet includes confessions supposedly made by Darwish to five attacks on patrols, none of them explicitly dated. The only real date is for participating in protests, which it said happened in the year 1433 of the Islamic calendar, a period from November 2011 to November 2012. Darwish was a minor in all but the last three months of that span.

The protests Darwish was accused of joining took place until August 2012, when Darwish was still 17. The absence of specific dates and times is common in juveniles’ charge sheets, said Hajji, the Saudi lawyer.

“They don’t say, ‘He has been executed for the crime that he committed on such and such date,’ ” he said. “They leave it floating. They mention a large number of charges without a clear definition of them, and without specifying the penalty.” It remains unclear which charge cost Darwish his life, and — most importantly — what age he was when he allegedly committed the crime.

The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment on Darwish’s case.

In 2017, Darwish penned a letter to the court, addressing the charges against him and asking the public prosecutor to produce the 19 photos mentioned in the court case, purportedly showing his participation in one attack. Darwish also emphasized that all of his confessions were coerced via torture.

“Most of what the confessions contained was dictated by the interrogator,” his handwritten letter read. He described how he was sleep-deprived, beaten with sticks and electric wires in sensitive areas, and forced to raise his hands and stay standing for long stretches of time.

The letter was confiscated by a prison guard and only later passed on to his family. It is not clear if it ever reached the court.

A few weeks after his execution, the four U.N. human rights officials put out their sharply critical letter, which was made public only last month. Signed by the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, among others, the letter blasted Saudi Arabia for sentencing to death a man “for crimes reportedly committed when he was less than eighteen years old,” especially after concern over his case had been previously communicated to the kingdom.

“We now are shocked that, in spite of the seriousness of the allegations brought to the attention of your Excellency’s Government in our urgent appeal, Mr. al Darwish was executed, our concerns left unheard and unaddressed,” the letter read.

Since Darwish’s execution, however, no other known uses of capital punishment for juvenile crimes have been reported. In three other well-publicized cases, sentences have been commuted to the maximum 10 years’ imprisonment. This represents a change in the conservative kingdom, and it has been welcomed by human rights groups and Western allies.

Yet the absence of an official legal amendment to the policy leaves open the prospect that such executions could continue.

“They need to publish the reform and show that it’s retroactive, and that it applies across all categories of offense,” said Jeed Basyouni, head of Middle East death penalty projects at Reprieve, a London-based human rights group. “They need to show us exactly who is on death row, and who is at risk of the death penalty, because there is such a lack of transparency,” she added in a phone call.

Abdullah al-Huwaiti, 19, also sits on death row, after being convicted of robbing a jewelry store, stealing more than $200,000 in gold, wounding two employees and fatally shooting a police officer. At the time of the crime, Huwaiti was 14.

Basyouni emphasized the need for legal consistency, which in cases such as Huwaiti’s could be the difference between life and death.

“Saudi Arabia is extremely sensitive to its public image. Particularly, Mohammed bin Salman wants to be seen as this great reformer who wants to change the country,” she said. “Using specific cases to explain how the law itself is flawed is our best chance at saving these kids.”

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