Saudi authorities may soon execute a Saudi man for crimes related to a 2011 protest movement, committed when he was only 17. His trial was marred by serious due process violations, and the court failed to investigate his allegations that he had been tortured in detention.
The Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Ali al-Nimr to death in 2014 after convicting him on charges related to an uprising by the country’s minority Shia in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in 2011. The Saudi news website Okaz reported on September 14, 2015, that a Saudi appeals court and the country’s Supreme Court had upheld the death sentence. The sentence requires the king’s approval before it can be carried out.
“Saudi Arabia has been on an execution spree in 2015, but beheading a child offender whose trial was unfair would be an appalling new low,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “King Salman should immediately quash al-Nimr’s conviction and order a new trial that guarantees him a fear hearing.”
Since January 1, Saudi Arabia has executed 135 people, compared with 88 in all of 2014. Most executions are carried out by beheading, sometimes in public. Saudi Arabia executed three child offenders in 2013.
Mostly Shia residents of Eastern Province towns such as Qatif, Awamiyya, and Hufuf have repeatedly held protests over discrimination by the government since 2011. Saudi Arabia’s Shia citizens face systematic discrimination in public education, government employment, and permission to build houses of worship in the majority-Sunni country.
Al-Nimr’s paternal uncle, the prominent Shia cleric and government critic Nimr al-Nimr, also faces execution. The same Specialized Criminal Court convicted him in October 2014 on a host of vague charges, based largely on his peaceful criticism of Saudi officials. The Nimrs are among seven men sentenced to death for their role in the Eastern Province uprising in 2011.
The court judgment in al-Nimr’s case, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, exposes serious flaws in his trial. He faced broadly framed charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes and was denied access to a lawyer. He was held in prolonged pretrial detention without judicial review, and the trial court failed to investigate his allegations that officials tortured him in detention.
The judgment says he was convicted on crimes that included “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “going out to a number of marches, demonstrations, and gatherings against the state and repeating some chants against the state,” and setting up a website on his blackberry to incite demonstrations. The charges also included attacking police with Molotov cocktails and rocks, sheltering men wanted by police, and helping the wanted men avoid police raids. Prosecutors gave no details of any injuries to police officers. Al-Nimr denied the charges and told the court that security officials coerced him to make him “confess.”
International law prohibits executing people for crimes committed as children and restricts its application to the most serious crimes. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all cases because of its inherent cruelty and irreversibility.
Family members told Human Rights Watch that following al-Nimr’s arrest in February 2012, authorities did not permit them to visit him for four months. The authorities called him before a judge for the first time in December 2013, without informing his family, allowing him to appoint a lawyer, or providing a copy of his charge sheet. The court held three more sessions before the authorities allowed al-Nimr to appoint a defense lawyer. Yet, as the trial judgment records, despite court orders to the contrary, Dammam Mabahith Prison officials did not allow al-Nimr’s lawyer to visit him in prison to help prepare a defense before or during his trial.
The court found al-Nimr guilty in May 2014 solely on the basis of a confession he signed during his interrogation despite his statements that one of his interrogators wrote it and that he signed under duress without reading it. The court was aware that the investigator wrote the confession, but judged it admissible because al-Nimr signed it. Family members said that al-Nimr agreed to sign the statement only after interrogators told him that they would then release him.
In dismissing al-Nimr’s torture claims, the judge said that “Religious scholars have ruled that retracting a confession for a discretionary crime is not acceptable…. Therefore what the defendant has retracted from what appeared in his legally signed statement is not permitted, and what the defendant has argued regarding coercion was not proven to the judges.”
Article 13 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, guarantees the right to a fair trial.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Saudi Arabia acceded in 1996, prohibits capital punishment for children in all cases (article 37(a)). The CRC stipulates a number of important rights for children accused of committing crimes, including the right to prepare an appropriate defense with “legal or other appropriate assistance” (article 40.2), the right “to have the matter determined without delay by a competent, independent and impartial authority or judicial body in a fair hearing according to law, in the presence of legal or other appropriate assistance” including the child’s parents or legal guardian (article 40.3), and the right to “not to be compelled to give testimony or to confess guilt” (article 40.4). Saudi authorities appear to have violated these obligations in the case of al-Nimr, Human Rights Watch said.
“Unfair trials of Shia citizens amount to no more than a legal veneer for state repression of their demands to end long-term discrimination,” Stork said. “The authorities should not compound their repression by killing a child offender.”