BEIRUT, Lebanon – The thief entered the jewelry store disguised as a woman, in a black dress and face veil, then pulled out a pistol and assault rifle to rob the store.
He shattered a glass case, shot and injured two employees, and looted more than $200,000 in gold before shooting a police officer. dump his body into the gutter and run off in the officer’s car.
The May 2017 robbery in Duba, on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, was captured on surveillance footage that shocked the kingdom, and a young man is now on death row for the crime.
But there is a wrinkle: The convict, Abdullah al-Huwaiti, was only 14 at the time of the robbery and murder.
A NewsMadura review of court documents raised other questions about the case. The court rejected evidence that Mr al-Huwaiti, who is now 19, was elsewhere when the robbery took place and ignored his claim that his first confession had been coerced.
Rights groups also cite the case as an example of the kingdom continuing to execute people for crimes committed as minors, despite legislative revisions aimed at limiting the practice.
Of the 37 people executed in one day for terrorism-related crimes in 2019, at least two were under the age of 18 at the time of the crimes they were charged, according to Human Rights Watch. Others who were executed or on death row may also have been convicted of crimes committed as minors, but the court documents do not specify their age at which those crimes took place.
“Saudi Arabia’s allies in the West more or less support and promote the reform narrative of the authorities,” said Hiba Zayadin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But a case like this cuts into that narrative by showing how incompletely and often unequally implemented many of the recently announced reforms actually are.”
Saudi officials say the kingdom’s courts are working diligently to enforce the laws. In a statement on Mr al-Huwaiti’s case before the United Nations Human Rights Council in February, Saudi Arabia denied that Mr al-Huwaiti had been mistreated, insisted that he confessed of his own accord and defended his conviction, saying that it was based on hard evidence.
“The death penalty is imposed only for the most serious crimes and in very limited circumstances,” the statement said.
Human rights groups have long criticized Saudi Arabia’s Sharia-based legal system for failing to guarantee fair trials and impose penalties such as public flogging and beheading.
In recent years, the kingdom has announced legislative changes to address some of these concerns as part of wider overhauls championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a son of King Salman and the de facto ruler.
Last year, the kingdom’s highest court banned flogging and instructed judges to issue fines or jail time instead. In January, the kingdom announced that the number of executions had fallen to 27 in 2020 from 184 the year before, largely as a result of a moratorium on death sentences for drug offences.
Human rights activists have called on Saudi Arabia to stop executing people for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18, which is prohibited under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Saudi Arabia ratified the treaty, but with reservations on provisions it deemed contrary to Islamic law.
But the kingdom has since changed some related laws. In 2018, King Salman imposed a maximum prison sentence of 10 years for crimes committed by minors, excluding the death penalty. Last year, he ordered an end to such executions in cases whose sentences are determined at the discretion of the judges.
But that prohibition did not apply to all types of cases. Convicts can still be executed for murder in so-called retaliatory cases, and for crimes such as adultery, apostasy and violent robbery, the sentences of which are laid down in Islamic scriptures.
Mr al-Huwaiti’s conviction – for robbing the store, shooting two employees and… kill the police officer — fell into the latter category, giving him the death penalty, regardless of how old he was at the time.
During the trial, prosecutors accused Mr al-Huwaiti and five other defendants of forming an armed gang to carry out the robbery. Another defendant was also a minor when the crime took place, and all six tried to retract confessions they had given to interrogators.
Al-Huwaiti said interrogators beat him, deprived him of his sleep and threatened to harm his relatives if he did not confess, according to documents presented to the court.
The other defendants received 15 years in prison and had to pay back the costs of the stolen goods.
The weapons and gold were never recovered.
To bolster their case against Mr al-Huwaiti, prosecutors cited bullets found in his home after the robbery, although firearms are not uncommon in remote parts of the kingdom; a DNA sample taken from the police car used in the escape; and first confessions by him and the other suspects.
At the trial, Brig. Gene. Walid al-Harbi, an investigator who opened the case but was removed from it shortly after for unclear reasons, said that at the time of the crime, and had indicated that Mr al-Huwaiti was on the waterfront, he had been given a giving alibi.
General al-Harbi did not contest the DNA match, but said Mr al-Huwaiti told him he initially confessed to the crime because the interrogators told him his mother and sisters had been arrested and would not be released unless he confessed. . .
The court rejected Mr al-Huwaiti’s statement that he had been mistreated or forced to confess.
“There is DNA evidence, but there is no way to verify it,” said Taha Alhajji, a Saudi legal expert for the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights. “You can’t trust the legal process.”
Mr Alhajji said prosecutors could have pushed for a conviction against Mr al-Huwaiti to prevent a case involving a dead police officer from going unsolved.
“Their colleague has passed away,” said Mr. alhajji. “They didn’t want his blood to be in vain.”
The case of Mr. al-Huwaiti now faces the kingdom’s highest court, which adjudicates all death penalty cases. If the court upholds the verdict, it goes to the king, who must sign before the execution continues.
It is not clear when the court will rule on the case.
In an interview, the mother of Mr. al-Huwaiti that her son had returned home around midnight on the night of the crime and was behaving normally. He ran errands for breakfast the next day, went to school the next day, and was arrested that night when security forces stormed the family home.
She maintains her son’s innocence, saying that a boy of that age could not have committed such a heinous crime.
“Where’s the criminal?” she said, asking her not to be published for fear of retaliation. “A child cannot perform this.”