Saudi Arabia: Review of young men’s death sentences overdue step towards justice

In an announcement published today on the Twitter account of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission, the country’s public prosecutor has ordered a review into the death sentences of three young men who were minors at the time of arrest and have been at imminent risk of execution. Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoun, three young Shi’a activists, were all arrested as children in 2012 and charged with offences relating to their participation in anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

Responding to the news, Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director, said:

“The announcement to review the death sentences against these three young men is a significant and long overdue step towards justice. We call on the Saudi Arabian authorities to ensure that any retrial that follows is conducted in a fair, transparent and open manner with access to legal representation. The authorities must also ensure that the ‘confessions’ extracted from them through torture are not used in proceedings against them.

“Crucially, the young men should not be subjected again to a deeply flawed trial before the Specialized Criminal Court, which was established to try individuals accused of terror-related crimes. Instead, the authorities must ensure that any retrial is conducted in a regular court.

“The country’s use of the death penalty for a range of crimes continues, reaching an appalling high number of executions last year with 184 individuals put to death. The announcement to review the death sentences of the young men should not be used as an attempt to whitewash the country’s image before the international community and ahead of its hosting of the G20 Summit in Riyadh in November.

“We call on the Saudi Arabian authorities to establish an official moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolishing the death penalty completely.”


According to information received by Amnesty International, the families of the detainees have found out about the review of the death sentences of their loved ones through the news and had not been officially notified by the authorities.

At the time of their arrests, Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoun were aged 17, 16 and 17 respectively. Before they turned 18, all were held at a centre for juvenile rehabilitation, an indication that the authorities recognized them as juveniles at the time.

On 27 May 2014 the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced Ali al-Nimr to death for a range of offences including taking part in anti-government protests, attacking security forces, possessing a machine-gun and carrying out an armed robbery. Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon were also sentenced to death by the same court in October 2014 on a list of similar charges. In all three cases the court appears to have based its decision on “confessions” the young men say were extracted through torture and other ill-treatment.

Ali al-Nimr has said that during interrogations by officials in the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Investigations (GDI or al-Mabahith) prison, he was beaten, kicked and otherwise ill-treated by four officers who forced him to sign statements that he was not allowed to read and was misled into believing were release orders. Instead of ordering an immediate investigation into Ali al-Nimr’s allegations, the judge claimed that he asked the Ministry of Interior to look into the allegations of torture against its own security officers. No investigation was known to have been carried out, and the judge meanwhile proceeded to convict and sentence Ali al-Nimr to death relying entirely on the “confession”.

In April, Amnesty International obtained information about a Royal Decree announcing the end of the use of the death penalty against people below the age of 18 at the time of the crime in discretionary cases not involving the counter-terror law. The announcement follows the issuing in 2018 of the Law on Juveniles, which prevented judges from imposing discretionary death sentences on those under 15 years old. It did not stop them from using the death penalty in cases of those who are convicted of hadd crimes (those with fixed and severe punishments under Shari’a) or crimes punishable by qisas (retaliation), a category of crimes under Shari’a in which murder and bodily harm are punishable by the same harm, such as the death penalty for murder and infliction of the same injury for bodily harm. The law therefore fell short of Saudi Arabia’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The announcement, which was a step forward from the Law on Juveniles, should still be followed by clear implementing regulations which do not exclude any minors from the reform.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender, or the method used by the state to execute the prisoner. The death penalty is a violation of the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.