Grace Kassab / AP

Beheadings remain integral part of Saudi justice system

Rights campaigners decry frequent use of a form of execution that has aroused revulsion elsewhere

The beheading of Pakistani national Izzat Gul for drug trafficking was Saudi Arabia's 46th such execution for 2014, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). In August alone, Saudi Arabia decapitated 19 people, eight of them for nonviolent offenses, including sorcery, the rights group added.

While the beheading of ISIS captives James Foley and Steven Sotloff provoked global outrage, human rights groups decry the limited international attention given to Saudi Arabia's use of decapitation even for nonviolent crimes — a punishment so routine that Deera Square in Riyadh is sometimes referred to as “Chop Chop Square.”

U.S. President Barack Obama failed to raise “a single human rights issue” with Riyadh during his trip to Saudi Arabia in March, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at HRW. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia on Thursday to discuss U.S. strategy to combat Islamic State fighters in the region. In press briefings ahead of the trip, there were no indication that the issue of human rights would be brought up. 

“There are a lot of interests at play in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, including economic and geostrategic issues as well as counterterrorism,” Coogle said. “Unfortunately, the U.S. prioritized these other interests over using its close relationship to push the Saudi government to make human rights reforms.”

Coogle said Saudi Arabia executes, on average, about 100 people a year, most via beheading, noting that the kingdom orders the death penalty as the sentence for a number of nonviolent offenses, including drug crimes, adultery and practices it deems witchcraft. The kingdom has one of the world’s highest execution rates, according to Death Penalty Worldwide, an organization that collects information on executions.

Criminalizing dissent

Part of rights groups' concern is that Riyadh is using violent forms of punishment to quash dissent.

Gul’s execution came shortly after a court decision last week upholding a 10-year jail sentence and 1,000 lashes — meted out in weekly installments of 50 lashes — against blogger Raef Badawi, who was charged with "insulting Islam" and "going beyond the realm of obedience." 

A Saudi news agency reported Badawi's conviction in March for his connection to "reformists" and for his tweets "against the rulers, religious scholars and government agencies."

His lawyer, Waleed Abu Alkhair — currently in jail facing similar charges — told the BBC that his client's charges concerned statements posted online calling for a relaxation of Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam.

Amnesty International has designated Badawi a prisoner of conscience, "detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression."

"Badawi's harsh sentence shows how little tolerance there is for any sort of expression that doesn’t jibe with the Saudi government’s official prescribed narrative,” Coogle said, adding that the sentence is “very consistent” with other penalties levied against liberals and human rights activists.

Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment by the time of publication.

The kingdom’s legal system relies on a hard-line reading of Islamic law, or Sharia, by religious judges who, according to Coogle, often rely on  "ad-hoc interpretations."

"Judges have leeway to criminalize all kinds of things,” he said. “It's completely left to the discretion of judges, within parameters of Islamic law, to state what the crime is and also the intended punishment."

In February, Saudi Arabia enacted a new Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, legislation that some critics warn is vague and could be used to penalize anyone who criticizes the Saudi establishment.

Over the last two months, Saudi courts sentenced to death five religious leaders and activists who participated in protests demanding constitutional reform. All five were charged and convicted on terrorism charges under the new legislation.

The new laws “turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

He said this is because "terrorism" can be nonviolent under the new laws, whose definition of it includes any act intended to "insult the reputation of the state," "harm public order" or "shake up the security of society."

Additional provisions in the new laws include the criminalization of unorthodox beliefs and atheism, participating in any form of protest against the government and attending conferences in or outside Saudi Arabia that “sow discord” in society.

Despite the criticism of foreign human rights groups, any reforms are more likely to originate in the corridors of power, said Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor who is the director of the school's Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Politics in Saudi Arabia is practiced in the backroom, he said, making it difficult to see incremental changes.

"In 2005, they had their first municipal elections, the first elections of any sort. That was a big deal," he said, adding that Saudi Arabia is a "very dynamic society" in the "throes of enormous change."

He added, "The Saudi elite is well aware that with an increasingly middle-class and educated public, the old form of absolute monarchy will be difficult to keep going."

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter