Human rights campaigners on Monday cautiously welcomed Saudi moves to abolish court-ordered floggings and end the death penalty for crimes committed by minors, but pointed out "loopholes" in the reforms.
The changes underscore a push by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernise the ultra-conservative kingdom, long associated with a fundamentalist strain of Islam.
Long faced with scrutiny over its rights record, the kingdom has one of the world's highest rate of executions.
It announced over the weekend it was ending the death penalty for those convicted of crimes committed while they were minors as well as effectively eliminating floggings.
"While the announced changes represent a major step forward, there remain questions about the extent of their implementation," Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
"Saudi Arabia's announced abolishment of the death penalty for child offenders and flogging punishment are not total, but appear to leave in a loophole for them to continue as punishments for certain types of crimes."
Saudi Human Rights Commission president Awwad Alawwad said that instead of court-ordered floggings, convicts will receive fines or prison terms.
But flogging could still be applied as a "hudud" punishment, which under Islamic sharia law is reserved for serious offences including adultery.
Saudi officials say hudud penalties are rarely meted out as many offences must be proved by a confession or be verified by several adult male Muslim witnesses.
Still, observers say the government is unlikely to abolish the penalties entirely as the move would rankle arch-conservatives.
Many hardliners are already irked by the Muslim kingdom's sweeping liberalisation drive that has allowed activities once deemed un-Islamic -- cinemas, concerts and mixed-gender parties.
- 'Modern penal code' -
Citing a royal decree, the HRC said those convicted of crimes while they were under 18 will now receive a prison sentence of no longer than 10 years in a juvenile detention facility.
But campaign group Reprieve said "significant loopholes" in the reform still let prosecutors "continue to seek death sentences against children".
It also remains unclear whether the new decree will be applied retroactively, the group added.
At least six men from the minority Shiite community are on death row on terrorism-related charges after taking part in anti-government protests as minors, during the Arab Spring uprisings.
United Nations human rights experts made an urgent appeal to Saudi Arabia last year to halt plans to execute them.
Saudi authorities have not said whether their sentences will be commuted.
"These will be nothing more than empty words as long as child defendants remain on death row," said Reprieve director Maya Foa.
"The kingdom continues to execute people convicted of attending demonstrations while they were still in school."
But Alawwad insisted the decree is aimed at establishing a "more modern penal code" and said "more reforms" were coming.
The kingdom is seeking to blunt international criticism over its rights record and its opaque judicial system, especially since the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a sweeping crackdown on critics.
Activists are sceptical that the reforms will see political prisoners released, pause a government crackdown on dissent or end executions.
It executed at least 187 people in 2019, according to a tally based on official data, the highest since 1995 when 195 people were put to death.
While the reforms represent "a significant step for Saudi Arabia if implemented, the country's continued use of the death penalty reached a shocking high last year," said Heba Morayef, from Amnesty International.
"It should also not be forgotten that dozens of peaceful activists remain detained following convictions in grossly unfair trials solely for campaigning for equality and justice in a vastly repressive environment."