Beheadings and brutality – a story of present day Saudi Arabia

Beheadings and brutality – a story of present day Saudi Arabia

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Courtesy of OpenStreetMap

I should start this post by making a very important point. This is only one aspect of Saudi Arabia that I’m discussing. I don’t (for one second) think that this is all that the country offers. There is a rich culture and history, as well as many other positive things.

However, they do have a strict interpretation of religion and some draconian laws that have caused much controversy over many years.

Four men were recently accused of importing a large quantity of cannabis into the country. More specifically, they were two sets of brothers (Hadi and Awad al-Motleq and Mufarraj and Ali al-Yami).

Now, everyone knows that importing drugs is wrong – nobody is disputing that. If these people did import them, then they deserve to be punished in some way. There may well be evidence of them doing this crime, although it hasn’t been released yet (it may never be). Every country has a right to deal with criminals using their own legal system – nobody is disputing that either.

However, there are suspicions that confessions were obtained by by torture. If this is true, then the commonly accepted process of justice was not followed. Many lawyers in other countries could end cases like this if proper procedure wasn’t followed. In addition, there’s always the possibility that the real culprits are out there and the authorities forced confessions out of these guys just so they could say they have ‘caught someone’ and ‘solved the case’

Amnesty International condemned the event, which was one of a series this year. The following are the words of Said Boumedouha (Deputy Director of their Middle East and Africa programme):

“The recent increase in executions in Saudi Arabia is a deeply disturbing deterioration. The authorities must act immediately to halt this cruel practice”

In the above Amnesty article, the crime committed by the brothers supposedly took place in 2007 and there are rumours that families had been threatened about contacting them.

I wonder why there was such a long time between the crime and the punishment.

Human rights and Sharia law in Saudi Arabia

A word cloud of the UN Convention Against Torture

The United Nations Convention Against Torture was signed by multiple nations in 1985 and became effective in 1987. Signatories included the United Kingdom, but Saudi Arabia wasn’t one of them. In 1997, they went into the ‘accession’ category. They don’t consider themselves to be fully bound by the text and had some reservations:

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not recognize the jurisdiction of the Committee as provided for in article 20 of this Convention.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia shall not be bound by the provisions of paragraph (1) of article 30 of this Convention.”

Essentially, they decided to pick and choose what they liked to make it suit them. This isn’t a great indicator of a desire to change. They weren’t the only nation to have reservations though. If you are a signatory and it’s ratified by your country, then it’s legally binding and you have to implement your own laws against torture. The above reservations mean they will not work with the Committee Against Torture to examine evidence of torture and they will not participate in any arbitration of any dispute between them and another country. They will also not work with the International Court of Justice on this matter.

Saudi Arabia deny they practice torture. This will be why they don’t recognise article 20. Any evidence against them would prove they’ve been lying to everyone.

The following is article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (you can find images of each article on my Facebook page and Google+ community. A full slideshow is available on my Slideshare profile):

“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

So far, they are not following international conventions and not complying with widely accepted ideas of human rights. This is partly because Saudi Arabia follows Sharia law. This is an Islamic legal system that is not fully codified. Many crimes considered not to be major by other countries are considered worthy of the death penalty in this system. That list of crimes includes:

  • Adultery
  • Armed robbery
  • Witchcraft
  • Apostasy (defection or disaffiliation – usually from a religion)

In the case of drug trafficking, it isn’t actually covered by Sharia law. You would think at this point ‘why did they get the death penalty?’ Well, that’s a good question. There is a provision that allows for a judge to effectively decide on whatever punishment he wants for a crime not explicitly covered (known as a Tazir crime). Unfortunately, this can lead to great inconsistency and injustice.

A good justice system and compliance with international laws can be an indicator of human development. If you disagree with Sharia law and the interpretation of justice in Saudi Arabia, then you might consider them ‘backward’. However, there are many other things to consider and the country does really well in comparison to many others. For example, the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators consistently have them higher than the middle eastern average for ‘Rule of Law’. The 2014 United Nations Human Development Report considers them to have ‘Very High Human Development’. They are also not far of the UK:

The wider issue of draconian punishments

The term ‘Draconian’ can be traced back to Ancient Greece. Draco was the first legislator in Athens. Whilst he replaced what existed with a written code enforced by a court, his laws were known for their harshness. For example, you could be put to death for stealing a cabbage. A debtor could be forced into slavery if they had a different status to a creditor.

There is a universal concept of fairness. A punishment must fit the crime. Many would consider it fair for a murderer to be sentenced to death (‘an eye for an eye’). There have been campaigns an petitions in the UK to reintroduce the death penalty. However, some would say that the death penalty is effectively legalised murder and they would go onto question whether murder is ever right. The intentional taking of a life could also be considered ‘playing god‘.

Many nations consider a fairer punishment to be life imprisonment. It is not death, but it is the permanent withdrawal of certain rights and privileges. One problem is that life doesn’t always mean life (here, here and here).

One idea would be to take the average life expectancy, subtract the age of the person murdered and the remainder would be the time in prison. The criminal would effectively be in prison for the amount of time that they’ve prevented a person from living. However, it is no longer fair when that time is in e.g. single figures.

I would think that life imprisonment is the best option if the murder was intentional. However, I firmly believe that life should mean life.

Of course, death or life imprisonment are the only punishments that could be considered ‘draconian’ in some cases. For example, would you think it was fair for someone to be imprisoned for 10 years for stealing a single sweet?


Many people have condemned the actions of the Saudi Arabia authorities. Many say the death penalty shouldn’t be allowed. The UK’s Human Rights and Democracy Report has Saudi Arabia as a country of concern. Sharia law is a system from a time when there was less separation between church and state.

In some ways the judge should be blamed. After all, it was his decision that led to the brothers being executed. However, he was merely following the rules set out by the leaders of his country (a little like the Nuremberg defence, I know). Those who sanctioned the torture should also be (at least partly blamed).

I should point out that Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country to issue the death penalty for drug related crimes. Others include Thailand, Malaysia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia doesn’t fully comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – but it’s not legally binding anyway. The don’t fully follow what’s set out in the Convention Against Torture – which is legally binding – but they aren’t a signatory and haven’t fully ratified it.

I’m interested in how you all feel about international laws and conventions at this point. Can they really be effective and make much of a difference if not everyone signs up and there is no clear system of punishments? Also, how do you feel about the death penalty? Do you believe it should exist in a civilised world? Also, do you believe that really harsh punishments work?

So, what do you think?

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