A SAUDI court has proceeded with a case against a child defendant at risk of the death penalty, contradicting the Saudi government’s claim it has abolished capital punishment for children.
In a hearing last Thursday, Saudi public prosecutors moved forward with their case against Mohammed al-Faraj, who was 15 years old when he was arrested outside a bowling alley in Medina, Saudi Arabia, in 2017.
Mohammed was held in an adult prison and tortured until he signed a ‘confession’. Among the ‘crimes’ he was accused of was attending a funeral of a relative when he was just 9 years old.
He was denied access to a lawyer, and faces a death sentence.
Recent months have seen repeated claims by Saudi authorities that death sentencing for children has been abolished.
These claims began with the announcement of a Royal Decree abolishing the death penalty for children in April 2020, and the Saudi Human Rights Commission has upheld this claim as recently as 21st October, in a statement condemning ‘inaccurate and confused assertions’ by human rights groups criticising Saudi Arabia’s failure to implement its promises.
Thursday’s hearing presented an opportunity for the Public Prosecution to withdraw its demand for the death sentence against Mohammed, and for the Saudi government to show progress against its Royal Decree and subsequent promises to the international community.
However, this did not happen, and Mohammad continues to be at risk of being sentenced to death for ‘crimes’ that include attending a funeral when he was just nine years old.
Taha al-Hajji, ESOHR Legal Officer and Saudi Death Penalty Attorney, said: ‘This was to be a watershed moment in Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the death penalty. Saudi authorities had promised to end the demand for the death penalty against all children.
‘International attention was affixed on the issue. Embassies from multiple abolitionist countries were in attendance. And the Saudi government punted. How are we to take their promises seriously, when those promises are so often empty?’
Maya Foa, Reprieve’s Interim Executive Director, said: ‘The fact Mohammed is still at risk of a death sentence, despite being arrested at age 15 for ‘crimes’ committed when he was as young as nine, totally undermines the Saudi government’s claim to have abolished capital punishment for children.
‘If the international community is to place any faith in these high profile pledges, the Saudi public prosecution should withdraw its demand that Mohammed receives a death sentence.’
Meanwhile data suggest that Saudi Arabia and its allies have targeted civilian infrastructure in Yemen, according to an initiative that documents human rights violations. Under international law, such attacks amount to war crimes.
The Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen systematically targeted bridges, considered key for the survival of civilian populations, according to a report published on Wednesday by the Yemeni Archive.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia and its allies launched an aerial campaign against Shiite Houthi forces in a bid to reinstall the internationally recognised government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Although the Saudi-led coalition claims that it adheres to international law with regards to its military operations in Yemen, data suggest otherwise.
More than 130 bridges have been hit by airstrikes between 2015 and 2019, according to data provided by the Yemeni Archive. In several of those cases, the bridges were ‘double-tapped’, a term used to describe a target struck once and then again hours later. It generally denotes deliberate destruction.
Many of those bridges linked key networks of roads that have served as lifelines for civilian communities struggling under the weight of the war.
‘These are not random attacks,’ said Abdulrahman al-Jaloud, project director of the Yemeni Archive, an initiative that collects, verifies and collates data about human rights violations in Yemen.
‘What we see is that these attacks are systematic.’
Although the Geneva Conventions, which aim to protect civilians during armed conflict, do not specifically mention bridges as civilian objects, such infrastructure is widely viewed as civilian in international law.
Under the Conventions, targeting civilians and their infrastructure is a war crime. The only exception is when civilian infrastructure is outright used for military purposes, such as the transport of weapons or soldiers.
However, even in such cases, international law calls for the principle of proportionality to be used when determining whether to attack such targets. That means warring parties have to determine how the attack would affect civilian populations dependent on the target.
In the case of Yemen, many of these bridges are used to deliver crucial humanitarian aid, including life-saving food supplies to vulnerable communities. Nearly 16 million people are severely food insecure and an additional 3 million are severely malnourished, according to the UN.
But the Yemeni Archive isn’t the only initiative bringing attention to the crucial role bridges play in keeping civilians alive.
In 2016, Oxfam decried the destruction of bridges on the main road between the Yemeni capital Sanaa and the port city of Hodeida, saying their ‘destruction threatens to leave many more people unable to feed themselves, worsening an already catastrophic situation in the country.’
In a country that depends on imports for 90% of its food supplies, the ability to deliver those goods quickly becomes a matter of life and death. The destruction of bridges significantly impedes such deliveries.
- Campaigners have filed for a judicial review of the UK government’s decision to renew arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said the weapons would ‘fuel destruction and prolong the conflict’ in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has employed widespread bombing in a war that has killed thousands of civilians.
Last month, a United Nations report said countries arming parties involved in the conflict could be ‘aiding and assisting’ war crimes, and said there had been ‘documented patterns’ of serious international humanitarian law violations.
In a June 2019 case, also brought by CAAT, the court of appeal ruled British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful and said ministers had illegally signed off on arms exports without properly assessing the risk to civilians.
It ordered the then international trade secretary, Liam Fox, to hold an immediate review of at least £4.7bn-worth of arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the government suspended new arms sales to the country.
However, in July this year the government announced it was resuming arms sales to Saudi Arabia, after a review concluded there had been only ‘isolated incidents’ of airstrikes in Yemen that breached humanitarian law.
- The United Nations has warned of the ‘highest level’ of malnutrition among young children in parts of war-stricken Yemen while the deadly coronavirus outbreak and shortfalls in aid funding have worsened a severe humanitarian crisis unfolding there.
It said that more than half a million children under five are suffering malnutrition in the southern parts of the country and the results of a survey of the cases in north, currently underway, are expected to be ‘equally concerning’.
In a statement, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Food Programme and the UN children’s fund UNICEF said with a 15.5 percent rise in severe malnutrition, at least 98,000 children in the age group are facing a ‘high risk of dying’ unless they receive urgent treatment.
‘The data we are releasing today confirms that acute malnutrition among children is hitting the highest levels we have seen since the war started,’ said Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen.
Since July, the UN has been issuing warnings that ‘Yemen is on the brink of a catastrophic food security crisis,’ she added.
‘If the war doesn’t end now, we are nearing an irreversible situation and risk losing an entire generation of Yemen’s young children,’ the UN official warned.
Yemen is facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis after Saudi Arabia and a number of its allies launched a war against the country about five years ago.
The ongoing war was meant to subdue a popular uprising that had toppled a Riyadh-friendly regime.
While the Saudi-led coalition has failed to achieve that objective, it has been continuing often blind operations that kill and maim civilians, including children.
Children are among the most vulnerable victims of the Saudi war on Yemen, but the issue has barely drawn any international response.
The survival of more than 24 million people, nearly 80 per cent of Yemen’s population, depends on some form of aid and the situation has deteriorated sharply this year after the outbreak of the coronavirus.
‘Escalating conflict and economic decline, plus the overwhelming impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, has pushed an already exhausted population to the brink,’ the UN said, adding that aid programmes including emergency food assistance have been disrupted as funds dry up.
Many Yemeni parents are becoming reluctant to send their youngsters to clinics for treatment fearing that they are at the risk of contracting coronavirus if being hospitalised.
‘Malnutrition here and in Yemen has become catastrophic and there is a significant increase in the percentage of malnourished children,’ said paediatrician Fahad Al-Qudsi, who works at Sanaa’s Joumhouri hospital.
‘There is a rising shortage of medicines, as well as proper nutrition for pregnant mothers,’ he said.
By mid-October, only $1.43 billion of the $3.2 billion needed to fund Yemen aid projects had been received.
The United Nations children’s agency warned in late June that the shortage of humanitarian assistance amid the coronavirus pandemic threatens to push more children in Yemen to the brink of starvation.
The UNICEF report ‘Yemen five years on: Children, conflict and Covid-19’ added that as the country’s ‘devastated health system and infrastructure overall struggles to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, the already dire situation for children is likely to deteriorate considerably.’