This is the second in a three-part VICE News series on the execution of juveniles in Saudi Arabia, in which we examine the arbitrary and sinister processes which constitute the Saudi justice system and its "counterterrorism" strategy, and reveal previously unreported examples of children caught up in its net.
"[Those arrested in the raid] were kids, to the extent that some we arrested thought the matter was over and they would return to their families."
Speaking directly into the camera in a documentary released last year, Saudi Arabian Special Forces General Major Sultan al-Maliki was very clear. A group of alleged terrorists rounded up by the authorities in 2003 were far away from their adult years.
The scene cuts to footage from the arrest, honing in on the face of one boy who looks scared, confused, and disorientated.
The boy was one of a group of youngsters from the African country of Chad who had been deceived into thinking they were coming to Mecca to study the Quran, according to the documentary — released by the Saudi government-funded news outlet Al Arabiya — and subsequent reports in Saudi press.
Instead, the Quran course "turned out to be a terrorist, criminal course, with disastrous results for those [juveniles] who were deceived," General Said al-Qahtani, Director of Police for Mecca, tells the viewer. "One of them hadn't reached 14 years old," he notes.
Al-Qaeda targets "vulnerable people" who "don't have the capacity to act or reject," explains Brigadier General Mudief al-Talhi. "They bring misguided children over and brainwash them," says an unnamed Major General.
VICE News has subtitled excerpts from the film:
In most parts in the world, children who are recruited, groomed, and deceived by terrorist organizations are seen as victims. Not in Saudi Arabia. These boys never went home to their families. Instead, at least one is known to have spent the next 12 years languishing in jail — and on January 2 this year he was executed.
The official Interior Ministry list of 47 people killed in a mass execution that day, combined with reports in Saudi press, which is all controlled by the state, identifies one of the dead as Mustafa Abkar, a Chadian reportedly born in 1987 who was arrested during a raid in June 2003. The major operation targeted a terrorist cell in Mecca thought to be responsible for a string of bombings in Riyadh in May 2003, and was the same raid depicted in the Al Arabiya film.
The birth year of 1987, reported by newspaper Okaz, means Abkar could not have been any older than 16 when he was detained — but Saudi activists believe Abkar was the 13-year-old described by General al-Qahtani, and that he was the young boy the camera zooms in on.
According to a source who spoke to the Middle East Eye, Abkar had no access to a lawyer and did not even get a court hearing until 2014, a single appearance in front of a judge at the end of which he was sentenced to death.
Abkar was not the only juvenile so-called offender to be capitally punished on January 2. While the mass execution was widely reported, what went largely by the wayside was the detail that at least three of those were prisoners whose alleged crimes are believed to have taken place when they were children.
Information about any prisoner or judicial proceeding in Saudi Arabia is hard to come by — the justice system is notoriously arbitrary and secretive, and the media often offers only sparse or fragmented details. But alongside Abkar, on the official list of those executed on January 2 were two names recognized by activists as men who were arrested as minors, which can confirmed by piecing together multiple press reports.
One was also arrested in the June 2003 operations targeting the Mecca terrorist cell that Abkar was charged with being part of. Amin Mohammed Aqla al-Ghamidi was arrested as he walked along a street in the city with a school friend, according to his father. According to a birth date reported by Okaz, he was 17 when he was detained while the European Saudi Organization of Human Rights reported he was 14.
Saudi Arabian authorities picked him up after raiding a nearby apartment that they said was being used to plot an "imminent terrorist act." He was an "expert in making explosives," reported Okaz following his execution.
"My young boy wouldn't be able to fathom let alone undertake such huge and Islamically-forbidden act alone," Amin's father Mohammed Al-Ghamidi told Al-Riyadh newspaper a week after his arrest. "It's clearly the work of older men preparing to commit criminal acts." His son loved studying, was one of the best students in his class, and had just had a university application accepted, he said.
Abkar and al-Ghamidi were not the only minors arrested in the June 2003 operation, according to leading Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. "Half of those arrested at the apartment were children," it reported shortly after the raid. Recruiting children was a deliberate tactic of al-Qaeda, it pointed out, referring to a comment once reportedly made by Osama bin Laden: "We're keen on young recruits between 15 and 20 as they are the most adaptable to the concept of Jihad for the sake of God."
Children are indeed ideal targets for terrorist groups, said Dan Collison, program director at War Child, because they can be so easily influenced. "Children haven't yet formed the confidence and the critical thinking skills to differentiate between an adult that's helping them and an adult exploiting them," he said. "Their choices and decisions are very susceptible to those around them — those influences can be very positive, but they can also be utterly malign."
While it was clear that some children committed very serious, violent crimes, acknowledged Collison, one thing was very clear: "A child should not be convicted of terrorism. A terrorist act is a political act, and a child doesn't have the capacity to act in that way. They have been neglected and let down by people who are supposed to be looking after them, but they are not terrorists. Whether a child is recruited by al-Qaeda, or an armed group in Sierra Leone, they are victims of armed conflict."
To convict a child of terrorism was a terrible breach of their rights, he said — to execute them was "unthinkable."
The final juvenile offender killed by Saudi Arabia on January 2 was not an alleged terrorist. His crime was protesting. Ali Said al-Ribh was detained on February 12, 2012, when he was 18 years and two months old. He was charged with participating in protests which took place throughout 2011 and early 2012 during the Saudi Arabian response to the Arab Spring.
Thousands of Shia Muslims — a religious minority which faces systemic discrimination inside the kingdom — took to the streets in the country's Eastern Province to demand better treatment and the release of political prisoners. Hundreds were rounded up and thrown in jail, including multiple juveniles.
Around 200 "laughable" trials have taken place, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) Saudi Arabia researcher Adam Coogle, most of them based on confessions which in court the defendants withdrew saying they were tortured into making them or didn't know what they were signing. Around 15 people were sentenced to death, including al-Ribh and three other juveniles whose cases have received international attention — Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher — who are still alive.
Al-Ribh was tortured while in custody, according to information gathered by anti-death penalty NGO Reprieve. After five hearings, he was sentenced to death for crimes including using weapons against security forces during a protest and using his Blackberry to help organize demonstrations. He always denied any use of violence. The Saudi authorities did not inform his family of the execution and have kept the location of his burial secret, said Reprieve.
'Prosecutors and judges are free to criminalize any act in accordance with their own interpretation of precepts of Islamic law'
All the young men discussed in this article were tried in Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), a secretive tribunal set up in 2008 to try terrorism suspects but which has been increasingly used to try dissidents and peaceful activists. It has no laws or statutes specifying its jurisdiction that have been made public, and anyway, Saudi Arabia has no written law. "Prosecutors and judges are free to criminalize any act in accordance with their own interpretation of precepts of Islamic law," notes HRW.
Aside from the fact the SCC and the wider Saudi justice system violate basic principles of due process, executing people for crimes they committed when they were juveniles is a clear and egregious violation of international law — including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — to both of which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.
Treating children recruited by terrorist organizations as criminals rather than victims, and sentencing people to death for protesting, would also be regarded as morally and legally indefensible in much of the world.
Despite this — and despite Saudi Arabia brutally crushing political dissent, practicing torture, and executing more people per capita than any other country except Iran — those who could potentially hold sway over the kingdom remain loath to condemn or sanction it in any substantial way.
The oil-rich state remains a close ally of the West, lauded for its role in the so-called war on terror, and enjoying a status as the number one buyer of American and British-made arms. The US has sold arms worth $47.8 billion to Saudi Arabia under President Barack Obama — nearly triple the $16 billion under George W. Bush — while under Prime Minister David Cameron the UK has sold $9.68 billion-worth.
When asked to comment on the January 2 execution, Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told BBC Radio: "Let us be clear, first of all, that these people were convicted terrorists." Such a comment suggested Hammond was alarmingly misinformed, said Reprieve, and came "dangerously close to condoning Saudi Arabia's approach."
In a statement on January 3 UK Minister for the Middle East Tobias Ellwood said the country is "firmly opposed to the death penalty" and had "expressed [its] disappointment at the mass executions." He said the government expected that "Ali al-Nimr and others who were convicted as juveniles will not be executed," but he did not say anything about those convicted as juveniles who had been killed the previous day.
The US State Department produced similarly insubstantial comments. "We have previously expressed our concerns about the legal process in Saudi Arabia and have frequently raised these concerns at high levels of the Saudi Government," said John Kirby, spokesperson for the Bureau of Public Affairs on January 2. "We reaffirm our calls on the Government of Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights, and to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases."
Obama visited Saudi Arabia last week, meeting King Salman in Riyadh to discuss bilateral relations.
Reprieve urged the US president to raise the cases of al-Nimr, al-Marhoon, and al-Zaher, whose families still wake up every day not knowing if they will be alive at the end of it. The young men, who were aged 17, 17, and 15 when they committed their so-called criminal acts of attending protests, are sentenced to die by beheading. Al-Nimr and al-Zaher were also sentenced to crucifixion — the displaying of their beheaded bodies in a public place.
No such overtures were made. At a press briefing in Riyadh on Friday White House Press Secretary Ben Rhodes was asked whether the president had discussed human rights, and whether he had raised certain cases that had received attention in the US. While there had been been a "very candid discussion" about human rights, Obama "did not raise individual cases," said Rhodes.
It is "absolutely shocking" that the US and the UK are standing by while juvenile offenders are executed by their ally, said Reprieve. "It is appalling to see [from watching the Al Arabiya documentary] that Saudi officials were well aware that they were executing several juvenile [offenders] on January 2," said Maya Foa, director of the organization's death penalty team. "Any Saudi concerns over the 'vulnerability' of juvenile prisoners, mentioned in the film, were entirely absent when they executed Mustafa Abkar and Ali Al Ribh on the basis of forced 'confessions.'... Now more than ever, the international community must call on Saudi Arabia to halt juvenile executions, once and for all."
Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: @miriambcwells
Follow Namir Shabibi on Twitter: @nshabibi