Publication date: 18/06/2021

The execution of Mustafa Hashem al-Darwish on 15 June 2021 calls into doubt the Saudi authorities' claim to have abolished the death penalty for minors. Al-Darwish, born in 1994, was arrested in 2015 for alleged participation in protests in Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which occurred when he was between 17 and 19 years old. 

Following al-Darwish’s arrest, he was held in solitary confinement, tortured and forced to sign a document confessing to the accusations made against him. After two years of pre-trial detention in violation of the law, he was brought before the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in 2017. Following a trial marred by numerous violations of international fair trial guarantees, including failure to investigate his allegations of torture, he was sentenced to death on the basis of ta'zir (the judge's discretion) in 2018. The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court on 3 June 2021, and his execution took place 12 days later without his family being informed.

Amid international criticism of their dismal human rights record, the Saudi authorities have tried to improve their image by announcing some reforms in recent years, but these have generally fallen far short of the changes needed. In 2020, the authorities purportedly issued a decree ending judges’ discretion to apply the death penalty to minors, yet it contained various loopholes leaving several ways in which minors can still be executed, such as by excluding cases brought under the Counter-Terrorism Law, as in al-Darwish’s case. Yet Saudi Arabia’s official Human Rights Commission (HRC) later insisted that “no one in Saudi Arabia will be executed for a crime committed as a minor”. 

For many years Saudi Arabia has been among the world’s leading practitioners of the death penalty, and while 2020 saw a sharp fall in the number of executions carried out in the kingdom, it is not clear whether this will prove to have been a one-off reduction -- perhaps related to the COVID-19 pandemic -- or the start of a new trend. The government-sponsored HRC announced that the reduction was linked to a moratorium on executions for drug-related offences, and indeed no executions have been carried out for such offences since January 2020, though no change in the law has been officially promulgated. However 2021 has seen a total of 30 executions carried out so far, more than the number for the whole of 2020, suggesting that the reduction last year was only temporary.  

There are at least 40 detainees in Saudi Arabia, including minors, who remain at risk of execution. ALQST calls on the Saudi authorities to establish a moratorium on use of the death penalty with the aim of working towards its abolition.

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