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Is Saudi Arabia planning a mass execution?

June 11, 2021

The execution of a Saudi Arabian protester, charged with crimes allegedly committed as a minor, could happen soon, right groups have said. They fear his death could be part of a larger upcoming mass execution.

Protestors stage a mock beheading in front of the White House in 2016.
US protesters demonstrated against death sentences given to minors in Saudi ArabiaImage: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Mustafa al-Darwish, a 26-year-old man on death row in Saudi Arabia, could be killed at any moment for crimes he allegedly committed as a teenager. He exhausted his final appeals at the end of May and his death sentence only requires the king's signature.

Al-Darwish's case was recently transferred from Saudi Arabia's highest court to the presidency of state security after a series of appeals.

"That means there are no longer any legal steps that can be taken," Duaa Dhainy, a researcher for the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, or ESOHR, told DW. "His family is inside Saudi Arabia and they are so upset and so afraid."

Royal signature needed

Picture of Mustafa al-Darwish, who is currently on death row in Saudi Arabia for crimes he committed when he was a child.
Mustafa al-DarwishImage: ESOHR

"Implementation of the sentence is now only dependent on the king's signature," added Taha al-Hajji, an ESOHR legal adviser who has represented defendants in death row cases in Saudi Arabia but now lives in exile in Germany. The royal signing of the final death warrant takes place behind closed doors and there is no schedule for when it could happen, al-Hajji added.

Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UK-based legal rights organization Reprieve, have called Al-Darwish's case particularly concerning. 

Al-Darwish was arrested in 2015 for taking part in anti-government protests in 2011 and 2012 when he was aged 17 to 18. Charges against him included participation in armed rebellion against the rulers, forming an armed terrorist network and seeking to disrupt national cohesion through his participation in more than 10 riots.

Capital punishment to quell dissent

He said he confessed to various crimes under torture. His family said he has not had adequate legal representation and that they were not able to find out what is happening to their son.

Al-Darwish is a member of Saudi Arabia's Shiite Muslim minority. Rights organizations say that the sect is marginalized and persecuted by the Sunni Muslim majority and that the death penalty is used to quell dissent among Shiite Muslims in the country.

Shiite Muslims sit in a mourning tent during a commemoration of the Shiite Muslim religious holiday of Ashura in the eastern Saudi city of Qatif.
Saudi Arabia's Shiite Muslim minority makes up between 10% and 15% of the country's population Image: Mohammed Al-Nemer/AFP/Getty Images

In March 2020, Saudi King Salman issued a decree declaring that crimes committed by people under the age of 18 would no longer be punishable by the death penalty and that sentences would instead be limited to 10 years in prison. The country's state-backed Human Rights Commission reiterated his decree.

In March 2021, several such men's sentences were changed accordingly. They were all members of the Shiite Muslim minority. Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher were between the ages of 15 and 17 when they were first arrested. All had been on death row but could now be released by 2022, given time served.

Broken promises

However, last year's promise does not appear to apply to all of the younger prisoners on death row. This includes al-Darwish and another man, Abdullah al-Huwaiti, who was convicted of murder and armed robbery in 2017, when he was 14 years old. Al-Huwaiti, now aged 18, claims he is innocent and that he confessed after torture.

"These promises by Saudi authorities not to kill minors were welcome, but even as they made them, we were already worried about how they might be circumvented," ESOHR legal adviser al-Hajji said.

Since 2018, Saudi Arabia has had a law on the books preventing the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles but, in practice, it is open to interpretation and can be circumvented.

A Bahraini anti-government protester holds a banner in Arabic that reads, "damn you" during a demonstration against Saudi Arabia's execution of a Shiite cleric.
After a high profile execution, an anti-Saudi-government protester holds a sign that says "damn you"Image: Hasan Jamali/AP Photo/picture alliance

According to Human Rights Watch, some of the underage offenders were accused of "seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions” and "chanting slogans hostile to the regime." Prosecutors classified these crimes as extremely serious under Islamic law and requested the death penalty.

Changing charges

"Saudi spin doctors are marketing judicial reforms as progress while prosecutors appear to blatantly ignore them and carry on as usual," Human Rights Watch's deputy Middle East director, Michael Page, said in a statement. "If Saudi Arabia is serious about reforming its criminal justice system, it should start by banning the death penalty against alleged child offenders in all cases."

Lack of transparency in the Saudi legal system means that the conditions of the arrest can also change, according to activists at the ESOHR.

"[Authorities] play around with terms and conditions," ESOHR researcher Dhainy said. "For instance, they'll keep the person in jail for years, then they may add something to the charge sheet and say that person was an adult when he committed this crime."

Exterior of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is pictured in Berlin, Germany.
The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Berlin did not respond to DW's requests for commentImage: Tilman Vogler/dpa/picture alliance

Mass executions on the horizon?

In addition to worrying developments in cases of capital punishment for crimes committed by minors, activists at the ESOHR have said they are also concerned about signs coming from Saudi Arabia regarding a possible mass execution of people on death row. 

In April 2019, 37 men were killed at once in Saudi Arabia, including two who were children at the time of their offenses. In January 2016, 47 men were killed during a mass execution.

Saudi Arabia is known as a world leader in capital punishment. Executions in Saudia Arabia were below average in 2020, with the country's own Human Rights Commission reporting 27 people were put to death last year. But that came after a record-breaking year for executions in 2019, when 184 were killed.

The decrease in 2020 can be attributed to a number of factors, said Jeed Basyouni, who leads the Middle East-focused team at Reprieve. Mostly these had to do with the pandemic but also because of an "apparent unofficial moratorium on executions for non-violent drug offenses." 

Worrying signs

ESOHR activists fear that the number of executions is about to rise again. Many of the 27 executions in 2020 took place at the end of the year, they noted.

"There are a number of other cases also approaching their last legal options in the next two months," Dhainy said.

There are 53 people currently on death row in Saudi Arabia, according to ESOHR statistics from last March. Sixteen of these are going through a final appeals process and three death sentences, including al-Darwish's, have been finalized. Of the 53 prisoners, five committed crimes when they were under 18. Almost all of those on death row come from the Qatif region, home to the country's Shiite minority.

Lebanese students carry portraits of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent opposition Saudi Shiite cleric who was executed by Saudi Arabia eleven days ago.
The 2016 execution of Saudi Arabian Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr caused protests around the regionImage: Mohammed Zaatari/AP Photo/picture alliance

"All these steps being taken now will have consequences and we feel that something is being prepared," Dhainy said. 

"The problem is that there has consistently been a gap between what the Saudi authorities say about criminal justice reform and what they do," Reprieve's Basyouni stated. "And in the past, talk of ending the death penalty for children has been followed by mass executions. When we say Mustafa al-Darwish and scores of others are at risk of execution, it is because it could happen at a stroke of a pen."

The Saudi Embassy in Berlin did not respond to DW's request to comment for this article.