By Angus McDowall – Reuters –
RIYADH – Immediately after his sword falls, the Saudi Arabian executioner steps backwards to avoid soiling his clothes with the blood of the condemned man, whose headless body can be seen slumping over backwards in the shaky online film.
After perfunctorily checking the white folds of his robe for flecks of red, the executioner wipes his blade with a tissue, which he drops onto the corpse and walks away.
A sudden surge in public executions in Saudi Arabia in the last two months has coincided with a U.S.-led bombing campaign against Islamic State. This has led to inevitable comparisons in Western media between Islamic State’s beheadings and those practiced in Saudi Arabia.
Defenders of the Saudi death penalty say beheadings, usually with a single sword stroke, are at least as humane as lethal injections in the United States. They deplore any comparison between the kingdom’s execution of convicted criminals and Islamic State’s extra-judicial killing of innocent hostages.
But rights activists say they are more concerned by the justice system behind the death penalty in the kingdom than by its particular method of execution. And critics of the Al Saud ruling family say the latest wave of executions may have a political message….
In the most extreme version of the Saudi death penalty, known by the Arabic word for “crucifixion” and reserved for crimes that outrage Saudi society, the corpse is publicly hanged in a harness from a metal gibbet as a warning to others.
An online film dated April 2012 on the LiveLeaks website shows a man being executed and then “crucified” in this manner, reportedly for robbing a house and killing its occupants. A group of five men suffered this fate in May last year in the southern province of Jizan for a series of robberies.
The reformist Jeddah lawyer, Alim, said he supported capital punishment in Saudi Arabia but that the legal system needed to be strengthened to ensure verdicts were just.
“I’m not someone who shies away from it. It’s part of Sharia. But it has to be handled with extreme sensitivity and care. At the moment it can be done on the basis of no other evidence if the accused confesses,” he said.