Two Saudis who were arrested and allegedly tortured for crimes they were accused of committing as minors are facing an imminent threat of execution, in what human rights experts say is a sign of the kingdom’s violation of its own promise to end death penalty cases against child defendants.
In a letter to the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, a family member of one defendant, Abdullah al-Derazi, describes how Abdullah was swept off the street and disappeared for three months in August 2014 for protest crimes he is alleged to have committed when he was 17 years old.
“Saudi Arabia’s government is deaf to our cries but it will listen to you,” the letter said. “You can help bring our sweet and sensitive boy home and prevent him being taken from us forever.”
In their appeal, the family urged Blinken to intervene on Abdullah’s behalf, saying the young man from the Qatif region of Saudi Arabia had been rounded up by authorities and imprisoned in order to “scare people to stop them from protesting”.
The other case concerns Youssef al-Manasif, who according to a new report by Reprieve – which is representing both men – was accused of crimes including attending funerals between the ages of 15 and 17 that were deemed to be “protests” by Saudi authorities. Reprieve claims Youssef was tortured and coerced into signing a false confession, was denied legal representation.
Both cases are currently being reviewed by Saudi Arabia’s supreme court. If their sentences are upheld, both would be at risk of execution, which could happen imminently and without notice, Reprieve said.
Saudi Arabia issued a royal decree to abolish the death penalty for children in 2020, stating unequivocally that individuals would not be sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were minors. But the kingdom has since then upheld the death penalty in a number of cases involving minor defendants.
The cases have reinforced criticism not only of the Saudi government, but of the US president, Joe Biden, who has fallen short of imposing any restrictions or consequences on the Saudi government.
In Washington, two US senators – including a key Democratic ally of the administration – have introduced a resolution that would force the White House to release a report on Saudi’s human rights violations, along with a detailed explanation of what steps the US government is taking to address the violations. The report would have to include specific information about Saudi Arabia’s conduct in the war in Yemen. If passed, the resolution would also force the administration to provide the Congress with an assessment of the necessity of continued US security assistance to the kingdom.
Senator Chris Murphy – a Connecticut Democrat who introduced the measure along with Republican Mike Lee – said he was disappointed that the administration had “not made good” on its promise to significantly reform the nature of its partnership with Saudi Arabia.
“I think the world notices when we talk a big game on human rights but we don’t often follow through. I think that the Gulf is getting a message that it can continue with its campaign of unprecedented political repression, business as usual, with very few changes with the relationship with the United States,” Murphy told the Guardian.
He added that his critique of US policy towards Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, among others, was that the government’s “asks” are too small.
“I don’t think we should be satisfied by just releasing one or two Americans [prisoners] or the Egyptians releasing three or four Americans. I don’t think it suits us to be so deeply wedded to countries that are engaged in these broad dizzying campaigns of political repression.”
If passed, the resolution allows Congress to recommend changes to US-Saudi cooperation, with only a 50-vote requirement to pass such changes. Asked for an example on what kind of changes could be imposed, Murphy cited the possibility of new statutory limits on military aid tied to human rights conditions.
The US-Saudi relationship appeared to have reached a crossroads in October 2022, when Biden said the Saudis would face “consequences” for having sided with Russia and cut oil production over the objections of the White House just weeks before US midterm elections.
But despite the threat, the administration took no action.
Asked about why more had not been done to address Saudi abuses, Murphy, who is a senior member of the foreign relations committee, said: “This town is bathed in Gulf money. The sacredness of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia is baked into the DNA of Washington. You are seen as heretical if you suggest the US can get along OK in the world without a deep enduring partnership with the Saudis. I think we have to wake up that it’s not 1979 any more.”
It is not clear when the resolution will be brought for a vote but is backed by human rights experts and dissidents.
Maya Foa, Reprieve’s US director, said: “Biden had not only promised to make Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ state, but also to hold it accountable. His fist-bump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman symbolised the craven abandonment of those goals. Perhaps Senate action will help him to honour his promise.”
The state department said in a statement to the Guardian: “We reaffirm our longstanding opposition to the use of the death penalty when imposed following trials that do not guarantee fair treatment, as punishment for actions taken as a minor, or for crimes that do not meet the ‘most serious crimes’ threshold for capital punishment, as recognized under international law.”
The department also said it continued to regularly raise concerns with Saudi officials about specific cases and the need for broader legal and policy reforms.