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(Beirut) – A Saudi man on death row could be executed even though he was 14 at the time of the alleged crime and his conviction followed a grossly unfair trial, Human Rights Watch said today. His case will be transferred next to the Supreme Court in Riyadh for a final ruling.
While Saudi authorities announced an end to the death penalty for children for certain crimes in 2018 and applied this retroactively to previous cases in 2020, the death penalty remains a possible punishment for the type of crime Abdullah al-Huwaiti is accused of committing.
“Al-Huwaiti’s court proceedings flouted almost every internationally recognizable fair trial guarantee, and yet a Saudi court still sentenced him to die for a crime allegedly committed when he was 14,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “In sentencing a child to die while ignoring torture allegations, the Saudi court made a mockery of the country’s alleged ‘reforms’.”
In October 2019, the criminal court in the northern province of Tabuk sentenced al-Huwaiti, then 17, on murder and armed robbery charges along with five other defendants, one of whom was also a child at the time of his arrest in May 2017. The court also sentenced al-Huwaiti to pay upwards of 1,315,000 Saudi riyals (around USD 350,000) in restitution to the victims.
The other defendants received 15 years in prison and 1000 lashes each for allegedly aiding and abetting the crime. All six had pleaded not guilty, telling the court during the trial that interrogators coerced their confessions through torture or the threat of it. The court ignored the authorities’ own evidence that al-Huwaiti had an alibi, basing its verdict almost entirely on his and other defendants’ confessions.
Human Rights Watch reviewed the court documents in the men’s trial, a detailed notice of appeal submitted to an appeals court by al-Huwaiti’s lawyer in November 2020, snippets of CCTV footage at the crime scene, and a handwritten letter by al-Huwaiti that describes his torture and ill-treatment during questioning.
On May 5, 2017, court documents say, a man dressed in a woman’s black abaya, niqab, and gloves walked into a jewelry store in the city of Duba in Tabuk armed with a pistol and a machine gun. He robbed the store at gunpoint, shot and wounded two store employees, and killed a policeman as he arrived at the scene in a patrol car. The man then pulled the dead officer out of the car and drove away in the patrol car. Publicly available CCTV footage supports this account of events.
On May 8, according to al-Huwaiti’s recounting of events in a letter dated January 22, 2019 and posted to Twitter by his mother, masked security agents raided his family home in the city of Duba, arrested him and his brother, and took them to a nearby police station, where they accused al-Huwaiti of robbing the jewelry store and killing the policeman.
Al-Huwaiti’s letter and his memorandum of defense say that security forces detained him for four months at Tabuk’s criminal investigations department alongside adult detainees. It is not clear why al-Huwaiti was not detained at a Ministry of Social Affairs-operated social observation home, where boys ages 12 to 18 are held during investigation, trial, or otherwise judicially ordered detention. The lawyer’s notice of appeal says that security forces interrogated al-Huwaiti without the presence of his legal guardian, his lawyer, or even a social worker.
Al-Huwaiti said in the letter and to the court that interrogators subjected him to torture and ill-treatment to force him to confess. He said they made him stand for hours at a time, beat him and slapped him on the face, flogged him with an electric cable on the soles of his feet and various parts of his body until he lost consciousness, forced him to hold his brother’s legs while he was being beaten, and lied that his mother and sisters were also in detention and would only be released once he confessed.
Al-Huwaiti eventually signed the confession prepared for him, after which authorities transferred him to a social observation home in Tabuk. He told another investigator there that his confession had been forcibly extracted. He said he was then transferred to a prison cell, where the criminal investigations interrogators from Tabuk arrived after midnight, blindfolded him, and transferred him back to the criminal investigation department.
There, he said, an interrogator threatened to pull out his nails, suspend him from one hand, and torture him in ways he “could not begin to imagine,” prompting al-Huwaiti to promise him he would not tell anyone else about his ill-treatment.
A second defendant, Sleman al-Atwi, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, also told the court during trial that his confession was coerced. “They tortured me, they beat me, and they sent me to the hospital,” he told the judge, court documents say.
The other four defendants also told the court that their signed confessions were incorrect and were obtained under duress. “I confessed because I was tortured, they would beat me and deny me sleep and they put me in a solitary cell,” one said. “I have torture marks on my feet.” Two said they did not know or have any connection to the others.
Both al-Huwaiti and al-Atwi said that during the investigation, when interrogators asked each of them to identify one of the other defendants in the case from within a group of several men, they showed them a picture of the man they wanted them to identify and ordered them to do so.
During the trial, police presented evidence that DNA from al-Huwaiti matched samples found in the patrol car, but this was the only material evidence against him and was contradicted by other evidence, court documents show. General Waleed al-Harbi, the police investigator who was initially in charge of the investigation and who was taken off the case for unstated reasons just days later, told the court after re-examining the case two months later: “I didn’t find any material evidence besides the matching DNA samples against Abdullah al-Huwaiti. In fact, I found several pieces of evidence that negate what the defendants confessed to in their court-certified statements.”
General al-Harbi stated that analysis of al-Huwaiti’s mobile phone found that al-Huwaiti was on the corniche in Duba during the crime. He also said that a review of CCTV cameras in Duba that day showed al-Huwaiti and his brother on the corniche, and not near the crime scene, at the time of the crime.
There is no indication in the court documents that the court took into account or investigated any of these allegations, and instead it based its verdict almost entirely on the forced confessions.
In 2018, four months after al-Huwaiti’s trial at the criminal court in Tabuk began, Saudi Arabia introduced the Juvenile Law, which sets a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for anyone who committed a crime before they turned 18 and was convicted under the Islamic law principle of ta’zir, which gives judges wide discretion to determine punishments in individual cases. In April 2020, Saudi Arabia introduced a royal decree allowing the law’s provisions to be applied retrospectively.
On February 8, 2021, the Human Rights Commission announced that the authorities had reduced the death sentences against three men arrested while children for protest-related crimes to 10-year prison terms. Saudi prosecutors are also no longer seeking the death penalty for another group of Saudi men arrested while children and on trial for protest-related crimes.
Despite statements by Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) claiming no one in Saudi Arabia will be executed for a crime committed as a child, the provision does not apply to qisas, or retributive justice offenses – usually for murder – or hudud, which are serious crimes defined under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law that carry specific penalties and the category under which al-Huwaiti was sentenced to death. Also in April 2020, Saudi Arabia introduced criminal justice changes that end flogging as punishment for those convicted under ta’zir (discretionary rulings), which is how the court sentenced the other five defendants to prison terms and flogging. Human Rights Watch did not learn whether authorities carried out the floggings.
In a statement welcoming the commutation of the death sentences for the three men in February, UN human rights experts also expressed “deep concern for the fate of all those who remain on death row, including Mr. Abdullah al-Huwaiti, who was also sentenced to death for a crime allegedly committed when he was a minor and is now facing execution following a trial marred by torture allegations.”
The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, which reported on al-Huwaiti’s case in 2019, said the case will be heard at the Supreme Court in Riyadh next. Saudi authorities should review the case and investigate allegations of torture.
“Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system will never gain credibility until it makes sweeping changes,” Page said. “At a bare minimum, Saudi Arabia should join the vast majority of countries by banning the death penalty for children in all cases without exception.”