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Saudi Court Blocks Execution of Man Convicted of Crime Committed at 14

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saudi Arabia’s highest court has overturned the conviction of a Saudi man who was sentenced to death after a lower court found him guilty of robbing a jewelry store and killing a police officer when he was 14 years old, rights groups tracking the case said on Thursday.

The conviction of the man, Abdullah al-Huwaiti, in 2019 drew criticism from rights advocates who said that he had confessed under duress and that the kingdom was violating international conventions that ban executions for crimes committed by minors.

Saudi state news media did not report on the high court’s ruling, which was on Wednesday, and a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

But the case’s new turn, which at least temporarily removed Mr. al-Huwaiti, now 19, from death row, follows other legal moves by the kingdom to reduce the number of pending executions for crimes committed by minors.

In recent years, the kingdom has announced legal changes to address some of the criticisms long raised by human rights groups about its justice system as part of a broader overhaul spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a son of King Salman and the de facto ruler.

In 2018, King Salman set a maximum prison term of 10 years for crimes committed by minors, except for capital offenses. Last year, he decreed an end to such executions in cases whose sentences are set according to the discretion of judges.

But that ban did not apply to all types of cases, including Mr. al-Huwaiti’s, because the judges convicted him of crimes whose punishments are laid out in Islamic scriptures.

Mr. al-Huwaiti’s mother announced the high court’s decision on Twitter on Wednesday, thanking God and posting a picture of her son with a photo filter and a picture of his lawyer.

The ruling was expected to prompt a retrial in a lower court, but it was not immediately clear whether the evidence against Mr. al-Huwaiti would be re-examined and if prosecutors would continue to seek the death penalty or ask for a lesser punishment.

In the robbery, in Duba, on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast in 2017, a man dressed as a woman entered a jewelry store, shot and wounded two employees, stole more than $200,000 in gold, and shot and killed a police officer before escaping in the officer’s car. Surveillance footage of the robbery fueled outrage over the crime.

Prosecutors based their case against Mr. al-Huwaiti on evidence that included a DNA sample from the police car and a confession, according to court documents reviewed by The New York Times. But one investigator on the case questioned the quality of the evidence, and Mr. al-Huwaiti said he had confessed after interrogators beat him, deprived him of sleep and threatened to harm his family.

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