Speaking up for children on death row

When people tell me they feel powerless, or overwhelmed by all the bad news in the world, I tell them they would be amazed at what we can achieve just by raising our voices. When we speak up together, loud enough for the world to hear, we can transform and even save lives.

Take Murtaja Qureiris. Like most people, I first heard about him when CNN published a video showing him riding his BMX bike through the streets of Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, to demand human rights. For this, and taking part in other peaceful protests, Murtaja was arrested and taken from his family, then tortured him into confessing to acts of terrorism. He was thirteen years old. 

When he turned eighteen, after more than four years in detention, Murtaja was put on trial. Prosecutors called forhim to be sentenced to death. But people spoke up, and made sure Murtaja’s name was heard around the world, and eventually the court sentenced him to 12 years imprisonment, including three years of probation. He could be free by 2022.

This is still an awful injustice - nobody should be jailed for exercising their right to freedom of expression - but Murtaja’s life has been saved. 

A similar story recently played out in Egypt. Ahmed Saddouma was a bright seventeen-year-old who loved karate and football, when he was dragged from his home at dawn by Egyptian security forces and thrown in a cell. He too was tortured. He too confessed to crimes that he had nothing to do with to make the pain stop - including the attempted assassination of a judge that happened three weeks after he was locked up.



Ahmed Saddouma

Ahmed was sentenced to death in a mass trial, alongside 30 adults. But thanks in part to an international campaign mobilised by the legal action charity Reprieve, thousands of people around the world learned about Ahmed’s case and called on their governments to take action. And when his appeal came round, the judge finally acknowledged Ahmed’s age and commuted his sentence to 15 years in prison. Again, still terribly unjust, but another life saved.

Hopefully, he will follow the path of Hatem Zaghloul, another child sentenced to death in Egypt, who was pardoned and set free this year following an international campaign for his release.

Hatem Zaghloul

As Reprieve has documented in its new Egypt Death Penalty Index, more than 2,400 people have been sentenced to death in Egypt over the last five years, including at least 11 who were children at the time of their alleged offences.

While it is easy to feel helpless when we hear about regimes that punish their citizens for speaking out, we canmake a difference and we do have a voice. The more of us demand an end to mass trials, the more likely governments are to hear us, and insist that states respect international law and never sentence children to death. 

Juvenile offenders remain on death row in Iran, Pakistan and South Sudan - perhaps as many as a thousand people locked up as children and sentenced to death. They need our help.

In Saudi Arabia, Murtaja has been spared, but there are three other young men on death row, arrested as minors for protesting against the regime, who could be executed any time - unless we speak up for them. Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon are at imminent risk, but by speaking their names and calling attentionto the wrongs that have been done to them, we may be able to save their lives.

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