As It Happens·Q&A

Advocate calls out Saudi Arabia for 'false promise' on executions after young man put to death

Maya Foa, director of the NGO Reprieve, says a young Saudi man's family is 'absolutely devastated' after he was executed for taking part in protests as a teenager.

Country pledged to halt practice of executing people for crimes committed as a minor

Mustafa al-Darwish was executed on Tuesday, after he was accused by the Saudi government of forming a terror cell and trying to carry out an armed revolt. (Reprieve)

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On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia executed a 26-year-old man for taking part in protests as a teenager. 

Mustafa bin Hashim bin Isa al-Darwish was charged with forming a terror cell and trying to carry out an armed revolt. In court, he said he was tortured into confessing to the crimes. 

Rights groups have criticized his trial as deeply flawed, saying that he committed the offences as a minor — something the government disputes, saying he was over the age of 19. 

Last year, the kingdom pledged to halt its practice of executing people for crimes committed as a minor.

Maya Foa is the director of the NGO Reprieve, which had been advocating for al-Darwish.

She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about how his family is doing now, and what they hope to accomplish by calling attention to his case. Here is part of their conversation.

Maya, did Mustafa al-Darwish's family have any warnings that this was going to happen?

Tragically, they did not. The mother of the young man found out about her son's execution through reading about it in public reporting, as is typical in Saudi Arabia, but absolutely devastating, of course, for the family who had been living in fear up to that point.

And do you have any idea how they're coping with this news?

They are absolutely devastated. They've been in contact with my team. They are still, I believe, awaiting transfer of his body so that they can undergo funeral rites. And this is another one of the cruelties of the system. You have no warning. And then in many of the cases that we've worked on, bodies haven't been returned. 
Maya Foa says al-Darwish was threatened and tortured until he confessed to a series of crimes. (Reprieve)

So families are unable to grieve. So that's the position they're in now. They are in shock. They are desperate for this not to happen to other people. And they want attention on the travesty and on the injustice of what's happened here in Saudi Arabia with their son.

Can you tell us a bit about how he came to be arrested in 2015?

He and other young people were involved in these protests, which were not violent pro-democracy protests. And he and others were arrested when he was still a child, 17 years old. Why was he arrested? We can only surmise that this is part of a wider political crackdown by the Saudi Arabian regime.

And they wanted to, in a show of force, arrest the protesters, I assume, to try to deter further protests. And obviously, what happened next was tragic and a real injustice. This particular young man was tortured brutally and placed in solitary confinement and, as you know, subsequently sentenced to death. 

What did he confess to, under that duress?

He was in solitary for for a long time, denied any access to family lawyers, as is sadly typical, and tortured so badly that he lost consciousness several times. As you mentioned, he was threatened and forced to confess. In terms of the confession, we understand from what the Saudi government has said, that he confessed to the charges against him to make the torture stop, of course. So those charges included attending protests that were non-violent, non-lethal when he was a child, and that's on his charge sheet.

But there's also a single image on his phone was brought in as evidence. Can you tell us about that?

My understanding is that they used it as evidence to indicate his presence at this protest and then to allege that he had committed the crimes on the charge sheet.

What kind of reaction has the Saudi government received to this this execution of this young man?

There's been a big public reaction, there's been a decent amount of media, and that's really important because what it has done is held up the false promise that Saudi Arabia made about abolishing the death penalty for children against the reality, which is the continued use of the death penalty against people who were children at the time of their alleged offences.

And so the criticism that has rightly been levelled from the EU, from politicians in many, many countries at the Saudi Arabian authorities for this execution has resulted in a strong reaction from the the PR machine of the Saudi government, the main focus of which has been to say, well, he was older anyway. And what is so clear here is that he was 17 at the time of the protest offences for which he was sentenced to death. And we know that because it's listed on the charge sheet.

The Saudi government maintains al-Darwish was convicted and executed for crimes committed above the age of 19, though no specific dates for his alleged crimes have been given. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

Mustafa's family issued a statement. They said, "how can they execute a boy because of a photograph on his phone? Since his arrest, we have known nothing but pain. It is a living death for the whole family." What do they want to to accomplish by going so public?

I think they would like to have some form of accountability for the tragic loss. I think they would like to see Saudi Arabia also held to account for false promises about abolishing the death penalty for children. It is not the case that they and others didn't raise Mustafa's case in the weeks ahead of this execution. They did, and we all tried to stop it. And it's devastating for everyone that it went ahead.

And I think the family don't want to see anyone else go through that. I am sure that they would want, if nothing else, for the same thing not to happen to others as happened to him. They are calling on the international community to raise this case, and to call on Saudi Arabia to uphold their promises.

Written by Kate McGillivray with files from the Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.