Saudi Arabia’s state-backed Human Rights Commission (HRC) said on Sunday that three young Shiite Muslims sentenced to death when they were minors have had their sentences reduced to 10 years in prison.
Ali Al-Nimr, nephew of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr whose 2016 execution sparked demonstrations in Saudi Arabia and Iran, was 17 when he was detained in February 2012 for participating in protests in the country’s Eastern Province.
Along with Dawood al-Marhoun and Abdullah al-Zaher, 17 and 15 when they were arrested, Ali was sentenced to death by the Specialised Criminal Court and faced beheading.
Ali has served more than nine years in jail since his arrest. His sentence was commuted on Sunday, while Marhoun’s and Zaher’s were commuted in November 2020, the HRC told Reuters.
Time served will apply in all three cases, the HRC said, and they will be released in 2022.
“Freedom soon, God willing,” Ali’s mother said in a Facebook post celebrating the news.
The move comes more than five months after the Saudi public prosecutor ordered a review of the death penalties issued against all three.
The review followed a royal decree last year that individuals sentenced to death for crimes committed while minors would instead serve up to 10 years in juvenile detention centres.
However, the decree was never publicised on state media nor published in the official gazette as is normal practice.
Human rights groups and western lawmakers had repeatedly raised concerns about the decree’s non-implementation, as Ali, Dawood, Abdullah and two other juvenile offenders had yet to have their death sentences revoked.
Eight others originally detained as minors still face charges that could result in execution, rights groups who follow the cases closely told Reuters in January.
The HRC on Sunday reiterated that the royal decree will be applied retroactively to all cases where an individual was sentenced to death for offences committed under the age of 18.
Anti-death penalty charity Reprieve welcomed the news but cautioned that the kingdom should ensure the decree was applied to all juvenile offenders.
“True change isn’t about a few high-profile cases; it means making sure no-one is ever sentenced to death for a childhood ‘crime’ again in Saudi Arabia,” Reprieve director Maya Foa said.
Although Saudi Arabia executed a record 185 people in 2019, HRC said in January that it reduced the number by 85% in 2020, noting it had recorded “just” 27 executions.
The Saudi government does not include religion in its census, but some sources estimate that of 32 million natives, roughly 10% percent are Shiites, mostly based in the Eastern Province.