The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to use the death penalty against people accused of crimes committed as juveniles, despite a royal decree claiming to ban that practice, human rights organizations and defense lawyers have charged.

On October 19, 2020, the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights issued a statement saying that thirteen prisoners still faced the death penalty in the kingdom for alleged crimes committed as juveniles. The following day, citing “glaring exceptions” in the royal decree, Human Rights Watch warned that eight Saudi men remained at risk of execution for “protest-related” acts engaged in while they were minors. The men were sentenced to death on “charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes,” the rights group said, including “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” “chanting slogans hostile to the regime,” and “seeking to incite discord and division.”

In April 2020, Saudi Arabia carried out the 800th execution under the reign of King Salman bin Abdulaziz. At the same time, Amnesty International issued its annual global report on the death penalty, detailing the record number of executions in Saudi Arabia in 2019 and the rising political abuse of the death penalty throughout the Middle East.

Facing global criticism, King Salman responded with a royal decree asserting that the country would no longer apply the death penalty to individuals who were younger than age 18 when their alleged crimes occurred. Instead, the King said, offenders faced a maximum sentence of ten years at a juvenile facility. Although the kingdom’s Human Rights Commission has said the decree would be applied retroactively, it has not yet been published in official form.

“Saudi spin doctors are marketing judicial reforms as progress while prosecutors appear to blatantly ignore them and carry on as usual,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Saudi Arabia is serious about reforming its criminal justice system, it should start by banning the death penalty against alleged child offenders in all cases.”

“There has been so much talk of reform, but no actual change for our clients,” said Maya Foa, director of human rights group Reprieve which represents three of the men facing execution. “Authorities announced that the death sentences of Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher will be reviewed, but not when or how: we will believe it when it happens.”

Saudi defense lawyer Taha al-Hajji, who is living in exile in Germany while representing al-Nimr, said Saudi officials had still not told his client’s family that he is safe from execution. There remains a “gulf between rhetoric and reality,” he said.

Ali al-Faraj, one of the eight men identified in the Human Rights Watch report, was arrested at 15 for participating in demonstrations and funeral processions. He was just nine years old at the time of one of the processions he was indicted for attending. Ali al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 at the age of 17. In an article in Foreign Policy, al-Hajji wrote that Nimir had been “tortured into giving a false confession [and] convicted of supposed terrorism offenses for taking part in anti-government protests.… Since exhausting his appeals, Nimr has spent five years wondering whether each day will be his last.” All eight men are from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where most of the nation’s Shia minority live.

Saudi Arabia was elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2018 after telling U.N. member states the kingdom had eliminated the death penalty for childhood crimes. It has engaged in numerous public relations efforts to improve its world image. However, the Saudi government went on to execute at least six juvenile offenders in 2019, Foya told the Middle East Eye. On October 13, Saudi Arabia’s bid for reelection to the Human Rights Council failed in light of the kingdom’s mistreatment of women, religious minorities, and political activists, the war in Yemen, and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.