For a Crime at 14, He Faces Death in a Case Casting Doubt on Saudi Reforms


BEIRUT, Lebanon — The thief entered the jewelry store disguised as a woman, in a black gown and face veil, then drew a pistol and an assault rifle to rob the place.

He shattered a glass case, shot and wounded two employees, and swiped more than $200,000 in gold before shooting dead a police officer, dumping his body in the gutter and speeding off in the officer’s car.

The robbery in May 2017 in Duba, on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, was captured in surveillance footage that shocked the kingdom, and a young man now sits on death row for the crime.

But there’s a wrinkle: The convict, Abdullah al-Huwaiti, was only 14 at the time of the robbery and killing.

A New York Times review of court documents raised other questions about the case. The court dismissed evidence that Mr. al-Huwaiti, who is now 19, was elsewhere when the robbery occurred and ignored his claim that his initial 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 legal overhauls aimed at limiting the practice.

Among 37 people executed for terrorism-related crimes in one day in 2019, at least two were under 18 at the time of the crimes they were accused of, according to Human Rights Watch. Others who were executed or are on death row could also have been convicted of crimes committed as minors, but the court documents do not specify their ages when those crimes occurred.

“Saudi Arabia’s allies in the West are more or less supporting and promoting the authorities’ reform narrative,” said Hiba Zayadin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But a case like this cuts against that narrative by showing how incomplete and often unevenly implemented many of the recently announced reforms actually are.”

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Saudi officials say the kingdom’s courts work diligently to enforce the laws. In a statement about Mr. al-Huwaiti’s case to the United Nations Human Rights Council in February, Saudi Arabia denied that Mr. al-Huwaiti was mistreated, insisted that he confessed of his own accord and defended his conviction, saying it was based on solid evidence.

“The death penalty is imposed only for the most serious crimes and in extremely limited circumstances,” the statement said.

Human rights groups have long criticized Saudi Arabia’s justice system, which is based on Shariah law, for failing to ensure fair trials and handing down punishments like public floggings and beheadings.

In recent years, the kingdom has announced legal changes to address some of these concerns as part of broader overhauls championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a son of King Salman and the de facto ruler.

Last year, the kingdom’s top court banned flogging, instructing judges instead to issue fines or prison time. In January, the kingdom announced that the number of executions had dropped to 27 in 2020 from 184 the year before, largely because of a moratorium on death sentences for drug crimes.

Rights campaigners have called on Saudi Arabia to stop executing people for crimes committed when they were under 18, which is prohibited under the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. Saudi Arabia ratified the convention, but with a reservation on stipulations it deemed in conflict with Islamic law.

But the kingdom has since modified some related laws. In 2018, King Salman set a maximum prison term of 10 years for crimes committed by minors, except for capital offenses. Last year, he decreed an end to such executions in cases whose sentences are set according to the discretion of judges.

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But that ban did not extend to all types of cases. Convicts can still be executed for murder in so-called retribution cases, and for crimes like adultery, apostasy and violent robbery, whose punishments are laid out in Islamic scriptures.

Mr. al-Huwaiti’s conviction — for robbing the store, shooting two employees and killing the police officer — fell in the last category, earning him a death sentence regardless of how old he was at the time.

In the trial, prosecutors accused Mr. al-Huwaiti and five other defendants of forming an armed gang to commit the robbery. One other defendant was also a minor when the crime occurred, and all six tried to revoke confessions they had given to interrogators.

Mr. al-Huwaiti said that interrogators had beaten him, deprived him of sleep and threatened to harm his relatives if he did not confess, according to documents submitted to the court.

The other defendants were given 15-year prison sentences and were required to reimburse the cost of the stolen goods.

The guns and gold were never recovered.

To build their case against Mr. al-Huwaiti, prosecutors cited: bullets found in his house after the robbery, even though firearms are not uncommon in remote parts of the kingdom; a DNA sample taken from the police car used in the getaway; and initial confessions by him and the other defendants.

During the trial, Brig. Gen. Walid al-Harbi, an investigator who had opened the case but was removed from it shortly after for reasons that were not made clear, said that cellphone data and surveillance footage had not placed any of the suspects near the shop at the time of the crime, and had indicated that Mr. al-Huwaiti was on the waterfront, giving him an alibi.

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General al-Harbi did not dispute the DNA match, but said Mr. al-Huwaiti had told him that he had initially confessed to the crime because the interrogators told him that his mother and sisters had been arrested and would not be released unless he confessed.

The court dismissed Mr. al-Huwaiti’s statement that he had been abused or forced to confessed.

“There’s DNA evidence, but there’s 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 procedure.”

Mr. Alhajji said prosecutors could have pushed to convict Mr. al-Huwaiti to avoid leaving a case involving a dead police officer unsolved.

“Their colleague died,” Mr. Alhajji said. “They didn’t want his blood to be in vain.”

Mr. al-Huwaiti’s case is now before the kingdom’s highest court, which reviews all death penalty cases. If the court upholds the sentence, it goes to the king, who must sign off before the execution goes ahead.

It is unclear when the court will rule on the case.

In an interview, Mr. al-Huwaiti’s mother said her son had returned home around midnight on the night of the crime, acting normally. He shopped for breakfast the next day, went to school the day after and was arrested that night when security forces stormed the family home.

She maintains her son’s innocence, saying a boy of that age could not have committed such a heinous crime.

“Where is the criminal?” she said, requesting that her name not be published for fear of retribution. “A child can’t carry this out.”


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