Fear mounts for Saudi's youngest death-row detainees
Abdullah al-Derazi's family describes him as a sensitive bird-lover who once cared for dozens of canaries, but the Saudi courts see him differently: as a terrorist who must be executed.
The 28-year-old is one of at least nine Saudis on death row for alleged offences committed while they were minors, according to human rights activists who routinely condemn the Gulf kingdom's prolific use of capital punishment.
His case and that of another man, Jalal Labbad, are in the spotlight after Amnesty International reported last month that their sentences had been "secretly upheld" by the Supreme Court, meaning their deaths could be announced any day.
At Derazi's home in the eastern Saudi city of Qatif, where the canaries and lovebirds he used to feed no longer appear, his family lives in constant fear of news that would stamp out their hopes of ever seeing him again.
Because Saudi Arabia does not typically notify lawyers and relatives before carrying out executions, "we will receive news of his (death) at any moment", said one relative who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Saudi authorities did not respond to AFP's request for comment.
An 'exaggerated' sentence
A total of 147 people were put to death in 2022, according to an AFP database compiled from state media reports, including 81 people on a single day in March, all convicted of crimes related to "terrorism".
The kingdom is notorious for beheadings, though state media does not specify the mode of execution. So far this year, 123 people have been executed, 33 for terrorism-related crimes, according to the database.
Human rights groups have slammed a counterterrorism law adopted in 2017 as overly broad, saying it prohibits any civil disobedience or criticism of the government.
The Berlin-based European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR) said that of the nine known Saudis on death row for offences allegedly committed when they were minors, six were charged with involvement in demonstrations.
Derazi and Labbad, members of Saudi Arabia's Shia minority, were arrested in connection with anti-government protests that took place more than a decade ago in the east of the country, where Shias are concentrated.
Derazi was 17 at the time, Morris Tidball-Binz, the UN special rapporteur on arbitrary executions, said last month. Labbad was 16 or 17 during the protests, according to the MENA Rights Group.
Amnesty has said their convictions resulted from "torture-tainted" confessions.
The charge sheet for Derazi, seen by journalists, includes not just "participating in demonstrations" but also "participating in forming a terrorist cell" and "targeting security personnel" – allegations his family dismissed as implausible.
"Abdullah has nothing to do with these accusations. They are accusations that are bigger than his thinking and interests," said the relative.
A relative of Labbad, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, said his alleged crimes included providing "assistance" to a wanted person in his Shia-majority hometown of Awamiyah, which the relative said was a reference to bandages and sanitiser.
"The sentence is very unfair and exaggerated," the relative said. "Does providing aid deserve a death sentence?"
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to transform the world's biggest crude oil exporter into a business and tourism hub.
Yet activists say the kingdom's continued embrace of capital punishment undermines the image of a more open, tolerant society that is central to Prince Mohammed's Vision 2030 reform agenda.
The UK group Reprieve says executions "have risen drastically" since Prince Mohammed's father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015. That includes 11 people killed for offences occurring when they were minors, the group said in a report this year.
Riyadh announced a royal decree in 2020 to abolish the death penalty for child defendants, but the text was never published and it is unclear if it is being applied.
"The number of minors sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia may be much higher because families are afraid to communicate and express their concerns" to human rights groups and the media, said ESOHR researcher Duaa Dhainy.
Authorities should disclose details of the decree and "enforce it for all defendants below the age of 18, regardless of their crime," Tidball-Binz, the UN special rapporteur, said.
Targeting young people is meant to chill any kind of dissent, said ESOHR's legal director Taha al-Hajji. It "sends a clear message to everyone that there is no tolerance and there are no red lines", he said.
"Everyone, without exception, is punished, whether they are a child, an old man or a woman." (AFP)