In Saudi Arabia, the Days of Beheadings May Be Numbered

Alternatives to the chopping block – though not to capital punishment – are under consideration in the kingdom.

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A Saudi prince holds a sword to participate in a traditional Saudi dance known as "Arda" during the Janadriya culture festival at Der'iya in Riyadh, February 18, 2014.
A Saudi prince holds a sword to participate in a traditional Saudi dance known as "Arda" during the Janadriya culture festival at Der'iya in Riyadh, February 18, 2014.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Muhammad Saad al-Beshi is a skilled professional. His occupation generates a good income for him, as well as bonuses, so he decided to teach his son the tricks of the trade too. Over the years, he says, his son came to work with him and assiduously learned the hand movements, how much force to apply and the precise angle to use. Al-Beshi is the chief beheader in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

One hundred convicts have already been beheaded in the kingdom this year, both Saudi and foreign. In the first five months of this year, more beheadings took place than all of last year. One of the first beheadings of this year was carried out in January, a short time after King Salman was crowned and just before U.S. President Barack Obama arrived to personally convey his condolences to the royal family over the death of Saudi King Abdullah.

Public beheadings are the preferred punishment in the kingdom for murderers and for anyone who has decided to convert out of Islam, but there are also lighter punishments. An ordinary thief can expect to have his right hand cut off while an armed robber could face the loss of both hands. Other circumstances also invoke so-called Islamic “qisas” as a punishment, a kind of “eye for an eye” approach: For example, removal of an eye of someone who hurt someone else’s eye; or the infliction of damage to someone’s spine if the person is convicted of causing someone disability.

When it comes to execution by beheading, a certain measure of “liberalism” is customary. For example, the severed head of the convict is sutured back onto his body since Islamic law bars harm to someone who has been executed. In that same spirit, the convict is given a chance for a pardon if the family of his victim is prepared to forgive him or to receive a ransom in return for a forgoing of the death sentence.

An Indonesian woman had no such good fortune; she waited 12 years for the imposition of her death sentence, until the young boy whose mother she killed while working in the family home grew up, and was in a position to grant her a pardon. The son refused, however, and she was beheaded.

At the beginning of the year, the government of Indonesia paid $1.8 million to the family of someone killed by another Indonesian woman. The killer claimed she had been the victim of violence. The ransom saved her life, but it should be noted that Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population, also carries out beheadings. The Saudi authorities took pains to point this out to Indonesia in the case of another Indonesian woman who was denied a pardon. In response, Indonesia’s foreign minister retorted that the Indonesian constitution requires the government to look after the security of Indonesian citizens, insisting that there was no double standard involved.

On its way out?

It is possible, however, that this gruesome form of capital punishment’s days are numbered. A researcher at Saudi Arabia’s Naif Arab University for Security Sciences examined a number of alternatives to beheadings, ones that would not conflict with the Muslim religious legal requirement for an execution that is quick and painless, that the body of the convict not be abused, and that everything be carried out in keeping with Islamic law.

The researcher, Abdul Aziz al-Tuwaijri, examined various acceptable methods. Firing squads, he said, are not a preferred option because the marksman could hit essential organs and cause damage to the body. On the other hand, if the marksmen are skilled and generally don’t miss, it would be allowed.

The electric chair, though, is clearly barred by religious law, since the convict only dies with the third jolt of electricity. The first jolt causes him pain at a time when he is still fully alert. Although he loses consciousness with the second jolt, he can still feel pain, and only the third one kills him.

Death by injection, on the other hand, is a preferred method as the convict is first given a sedative and dies following two lethal doses, without pain. This is the most humane means of execution, the researcher concluded.

It’s difficult not to be impressed by the intellectual effort that the Saudi Kingdom is expending to ease the plight of convicts facing execution, half of whom are drug dealers. Meanwhile, when President Obama was called on just prior to his visit to Saudi Arabia to express his opinion of capital punishment there, he responded: “Sometimes we need to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counter-terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”

Since our region is an inexhaustible source of concerns when it comes to terrorism and counter-terrorism, American silence on the subject of human rights is perfectly clear. Saudi Arabia is an ally in the war against other beheaders – operating in Syria and Iraq – and it also acts as a defensive shield against Iran, so what are 100 or more heads rolling in the main square of the Saudi capital compared to the benefits that the kingdom provides? True, there is one major difference: Beheadings in Saudi Arabia are carried out after adjudication by three levels of the judicial system, with the possibility of a pardon. Islamic State (ISIS), on the other hand, skips the legal procedures, which of course is intolerable.

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