Human Rights Watch has denounced as “appalling” Saudi Arabia’s move to hand down death penalty to child offenders, as three nationals are awaiting execution for alleged protest-related crimes committed while they were children.
“Sentencing alleged child offenders to death is an appalling example of the Saudi court system’s injustice,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director of HRW, said on Sunday.
The rights group obtained and analyzed the trial judgments that the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, handed down in 2014 against Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, and in a separate case, against Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher.
Saudi judges based the capital convictions primarily on confessions that the three defendants later retracted in court while saying they had been coerced.
HRW said the courts did not investigate the allegations that the confessions were obtained by torture.
It said that the judgment analysis reveals blatant violation of due process violation, including denial of access to lawyers before and during lengthy pretrial detention, when investigators obtained the confessions.
“Not only are these three young men sentenced to death for alleged crimes they committed as children, but the courts didn’t even bother to investigate when they said they were coerced to confess,” Whitson said.
The three young Shia Muslims were arrested in 2012 over their alleged roles in anti-regime protests in the Qatif region of the Eastern Province.
Citing local activists, the rights group said that more than 200 people from Shia-majority towns and villages in the Eastern Province have gone on trial for similar offenses since 2011.
Mostly Shia residents of Eastern Province towns such as Qatif, Awamiya, and Hufuf have repeatedly held protests over discrimination by the government since 2011.
“Unfair trials of Shia citizens are simply another way Saudi Arabia has tried to silence its citizens’ demands to end long-term discrimination,” Whitson said.
“The authorities should not compound their repression by killing child offenders,” she added.
Al-Marhoon and al-Zaher are facing a range of charges, including “participating in marches and gatherings … and chanting slogans against the state” and throwing Molotov cocktails at police patrols.
Al-Nimr, the third defendant, is the nephew of prominent Shia cleric Ayatollah Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, who was executed in January on charges of disturbing the kingdom’s security, making anti-government speeches, and defending political prisoners.
Al-Nimr and al-Marhoun were both 17 at the time of their arrests, while al-Zaher was 15. With all appeals exhausted now, the three could be executed at any time.
The court found the three activists guilty based on their confessions. Al-Nimr’s family members said he agreed to sign the confession only after interrogators told him that they would then release him.
Defense lawyers for al-Zaher and al-Marhoun said that both boys had been beaten and threatened with further beatings if they did not sign confessions written by interrogators.
Lawyers for all three men asked the court to summon the people who interrogated the defendants to clarify the circumstances leading up to their confessions, but judges ignored the requests.
The three men were detained without charge for up to 22 months and denied access to lawyers before and during their trials.