Analyzing the Leaked Penal Code of Saudi Arabia: Persistent Failure to Commit to Human Rights Standards

The draft of Saudi Arabia’s first penal code was leaked in July 2022. The text has been the subject of various allegations, which Saudi Arabia promptly denied. However, Amnesty International, which first denounced the code’s flaws, ensures that several Saudi legal experts have confirmed its authenticity. More recently, Amnesty International shared its analysis of the draft code with Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers and the Saudi Arabian Human Rights Commission, who stated that the text is still under legislative review. Nonetheless, the draft leak poses serious concerns over the premises of the Crown Prince to improve human rights standards. In particular, some provisions allow for measures criminalizing defamation; it provides for the death penalty for minors and gives too broad power to judges to interpret Sharia law.

Indeed, codifying Saudi Arabia’s penal code is an opportunity to better define crimes and check whether the punishments align with international law standards. However, the leaked version lacks a well-defined legislative framework (crimes and punishments can be broadly interpreted).  Also, it criminalizes acts protected under international law with the use of corporal punishment and the death penalty.

The penalty for premeditated murder was included in the draft code, stipulating that it is punishable by seven to fifteen years. However, the text left significant legal loopholes that allowed judges to interpret the circumstances of the crime and consequently inflict the death penalty. For example, judges can impose the death penalty in cases where the perpetrator committed other ‘serious crimes.’ In addition, for hadd crimes, which the Quran deems as serious crimes, the draft code allows for execution. However, included in this category of crimes, there are some offenses like robbery and drinking alcohol that are considered minor under international law and consequently should not be punished with the death penalty. Finally, the most concerning aspect of the draft code was setting the age of criminal responsibility at seven years, at which time a person can also be punished with the death sentence. On this matter, The Commission on the Rights of the Child (CRC) repeatedly stated that the age of criminal responsibility is 12 years old and that the use of the death penalty against minors is prohibited.

Another issue present in the draft of the penal code for which ADHRB has often advocated is the significant discretionary power of the judges. Even with the possible presence of a written code, judges would use discretion to interpret Sharia, possibly violating human rights law standards. ADHRB expresses particular concern over the interpretation of ta’zir, which, following the Sharia, should not reach the level of punishment for hudud crimes. Nonetheless, in Saudi Arabia, there have been examples in which judges could sentence individuals to death by using broad interpretative powers.

ADHRB acknowledges that drafting a penal code for Saudi Arabia would benefit the judiciary by defining a framework for its operation. However, the draft code raises serious concerns over the Crown’s political premises and the reliability of the laws. For these reasons, ADHRB recommends that Saudi Arabia amend the draft code significantly and ensure that its text aligns with the international obligations adopted.