Posted on March 26, 2013

Saudi Arabia May End Execution by Beheading as It Runs Short of Swordsmen

Alex Spillius, Telegraph (London), March 11, 2013

An official in the ultra-conservative kingdom said that sword-bearing executioners “are not readily available everywhere and on some occasions, executions were marred by confusion as the executioner was late in showing up at the designated public place”.

The unnamed bureaucrat told the daily Al Youm that in the age of easy digital communication, executioners’ lateness was “causing confusion and sparking speculation and rumours through modern technology”, a remark that perhaps hinted at public opposition.

A special inter-ministerial committee was examining the possible change to a method that has been used for centuries and which Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia claim is based on the Koran.

No specific reason was given for the shortage of executioners, but firing squads have occasionally been used in the past, and the committee has reportedly found that it “does not constitute a religious violation”.

Regional governors have already been given the discretion to resort to the firing squad, the paper said, if sharia courts fail to specify beheading.

But the committee appears to have rejected calls from reformists within the kingdom to use US-style lethal injections in prisons.

The Saudi government has yet to comment on the reports.

The only place in the world that still decapitates criminals, the kingdom is among a handful of countries that stages public executions. In rare cases beheaded corpses are placed on a crucifix for three days as an extra deterrent.

Executioners use a traditional scimitar that is three and a half to four feet in length. The condemned man or woman is blindfolded, dressed in white and made to kneel in the direction of Mecca.

In a rare interview in 2003, Mohammed Saad al-Beshi, an executioner, said that decapitation required a single swing of his blade.

“I look after it and sharpen it once in a while, and I make sure to clean it of bloodstains. It’s very sharp. People are amazed how fast it can separate the head from the body,” he told Arab News.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers faced vociferous international condemnation in 2011 for beheading Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan maid who allegedly choked to death a baby in her care.

Only 17 at the time, human rights groups said she was denied proper legal representation. Condemned women in Saudi Arabia were killed by firing squad until the 1990s, when the authorities insisted they should be beheaded too.

In recent times, Saudi Arabia has executed 70 to 80 people annually, and is among the top five countries to enforce the death penalty, along with China, Iran, North Korea and the United States.

It has the widest number of crimes punishable by death, including murder, rape, sodomy, robbery, theft (after four offences), false prophecy and witchcraft.

The high level deliberations in Riyadh came too late for Khaled bin Hamad, who was beheaded yesterday, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, for stabbing to death another man during a row. He became the 18th person to the executed in the country this year.

Under King Abdullah, modest reforms have been introduced. Women have been allowed to vote in future municipal elections, the only public polls held in the kingdom, while in 2009 the first co-educational further education institute opened despite strong clerical opposition.