Sword of Justice? Beheadings Rise in Saudi Arabia

By Weinberg, Jon | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Sword of Justice? Beheadings Rise in Saudi Arabia


Weinberg, Jon, Harvard International Review


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 last year. 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. …

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