On November 25, 2007, a Saudi man was beheaded by sword for committing homicide. His execution brought the country’s official number of beheadings to 151. This number was a new record, standing in stark contrast to the 2006 total of 38 and far exceeding the previous record of 113 beheadings in 2000. Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery, and drug trafficking are among the many crimes punishable by beheading in the oil-rich kingdom. Saudis point out that theirs is far from being the only country that maintains capital punishment. Yet, while it would be hypocritical as well as unreasonable to demand the kingdom to eliminate executions altogether, public beheadings are nonetheless cruel and unusual on a global scale. The discussion on this matter has shifted toward one on human rights–namely the right to die with dignity.
One of the primary reasons for the recent increase may lie in the psychological implications of beheadings. Some human rights experts argue that the kingdom’s powerful official clerics fear that they are losing their influence over the Saudi population. In order to achieve the fullest impact on the general populace, beheadings are often performed outside mosques in major cities after prayer services on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Much like the French use of the guillotine in the eighteenth century, a desensitized Saudi citizenry may have grown accustomed to and even expect beheadings. Repeated exposure to public beheadings has decreased their shock value and increased the public’s overall tolerance to them.
Social conditions also render the country particularly vulnerable to abrupt increases in fervor. Justification for capital punishment derives from the country’s conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Shariah, the set of Islamic religious laws. Yet these interpretations are by no means universally accepted in the Muslim world. Many clerics and scholars insist that the Quran makes no mention of the practice whatsoever. Of the roughly 57 Muslim-majority countries worldwide, only in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, and Qatar do national laws permit beheading. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is the only country that actually continues to behead its offenders, although both Iran and Saudi Arabia uphold the tradition of stoning adulterers to death.
Even with religious rationalization, significant ambiguity still surrounds the legal precedent for these execution practices. Although many of those beheaded are tried and convicted first, evidence suggests that many are neither explained their rights nor provided legal counsel. Most notable among this latter group are foreigners, typically migrant workers from South Asia, Africa, and the poorer areas of the Arab world. In November 2007 alone, those beheaded included citizens of Bangladesh, Yemen, Pakistan, and Ghana.
The imminent beheading of a 19 year-old Sri Lankan girl, Rizana Nafeek, received considerable international attention in 2007. Nafeek had left Sri Lanka to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia and was accused of murdering her employer’s infant child. She was tried without an attorney, apparently confessing to strangling the child under duress. Eventually, as the result of the efforts of international advocacy groups’ efforts, Nafeek received a lawyer in May, and the Sri Lankan foreign ministry attempted to intervene on her behalf. As of December 8, 2007, the country’s Appellate Court began hearing her case. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, Saudi police allegedly tortured a confession out of Nafeek, an accusation the Saudi judicial system has been forced to take seriously in light of international attention.
Despite this recent development, few outside Sri Lanka have maintained interest in the woman’s fate, and international attention to the case has waned. This is peculiarly indicative of Saudi beheadings as a whole. Since August 2007, there have been dozens of beheadings reported, but none have drawn any particular international outcry. The level of domestic criticism for beheadings, though not entirely negligible, is hard to assess given the kingdom’s tight control on media censorship. And while external human rights advocacy groups continue to demand an end to the practice, no one is encouraging Saudi Arabia to adopt a more structured, pragmatic approach–e.g., exercising greater discretion in choosing those to execute publicly or, better yet, transitioning toward a system of predominantly private, discreet capital punishment. With no end to beheadings in sight and with Saudi accusations of foreign critics’ moral relativism, promoting moderation is the only chance the international community has at swaying Saudi Arabia diplomatically.
By Jon Weinberg