Saudi Arabia: execution announcement raises concern over fate of three young activists

On 11 March 2016, the Saudi news website Okaz published an article stating that four “terrorists” would be imminently executed. The article states that 13 judges have approved the death sentences at all stages of the appeal process for all four individuals. It goes on to claim that Saudi courts convicted the four individuals of terrorist-related activities, including joining terrorist organizations, carrying out criminal plans, and targeting security personnel. According to the authors, these sentences will further contribute to the mass execution of 47 “terrorists” in January of this year, a group which included Muslim cleric and human rights activist Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, mentally ill prisoners, and prisoners arrested for crimes allegedly committed as minors.

The 11 March Okaz report recalls an earlier Okaz report, published in late November 2015. The November article announced the impending execution of 55 “terrorists,” similarly stating that the defendants had engaged in terrorist activities and established terrorist cells intending to overthrow the Saudi government. Less than a month and a half after the publication of the November Okaz article, the Saudi government carried out a mass execution of 47 prisoners, raising grave concerns that the Saudi government may be headed toward another mass execution.

The identities of the four prisoners to be executed remain unclear, but the announcement raises concern over the fate of three men currently on death row for crimes committed as minors. Saudi authorities sentenced Ali al-Nimr, the nephew of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr; Dawood al-Marhoon; and Abdullah al-Zaher to death for their participation in protests in the Eastern Province in 2012.

All three were minors at the time of their arrests, and the Government of Saudi Arabia tried all three men in front of the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), a court created by the state to try terrorism-related cases. Saudi authorities reportedly tortured the three minors into signing false confessions, and then used these confessions as evidence to convict them. Throughout their detention and trials, the minors did not have consistent access to legal representation. The SCC sentenced all three men to death in 2014.

The announcement of the impending executions comes during the thirty-first session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, where Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture and Information defended the kingdom’s human rights record, stating the government “promotes human rights” and “fights torture in all its physical and moral manifestations.” Such statements contradict the realities on the ground, as Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain and other independent NGOs have documented Saudi Arabia’s use of torture to extract confessions and commencement of unfair trials. Moreover, the execution of one or more of these minors would directly contravene the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia acceded in 1996. While the kingdom defends its human rights record in Geneva, three young men who endured torture and unfair trials risk execution at any moment in Saudi Arabia.