A lack of qualified swordsmen may relegate the barbaric Saudi practice of public beheadings to the historical ash heap, although such a change is unlikely to slow down the swelling numbers of people being put to death in the Saudi Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s Sharia-based judicial system has long considered public beheadings, along with the occasional crucifixion and stoning, to be acceptable Islamic forms of capital punishment.
While those punishments come to those convicted of murder, rape, sodomy, drug trafficking, and armed robbery, other offenses, such as apostasy, adultery, drug use, and witchcraft can also earn a date with the swordsman.
However, a Saudi government committee has found that an alarming “scarcity of swordsmen and their unavailability in a number of regions” cannot keep pace with the several thousand people estimated to be on death row throughout Saudi Arabia’s 13 administrative regions.
As a result, the committee recommended that firing squads be used as an acceptable method of execution for capital sentences, one which would not only be cost effective but limit the unprofessional specter of executioners either running late for their appointed rounds or showing up at the wrong venue.
That latter problem was specifically highlighted in the committee report, which found that swordsmen delayed by excess travel requirements “causes security confusion” an issue exacerbated by “the resulting spreading of rumors through modern technology.”
While some Saudis may have feared that firing squads would not be Sharia compliant, those concerns were allayed by the committee which found the practice “does not constitute a religious violation.”
That viewpoint was reaffirmed by a senior Saudi cleric, Sheikh Ali Al-Hakami, who said, “Beheading by sword is the best way to achieve the purpose of punishment in Islam because it does not cause any torture.”
Of course, that opinion may be clearly up for debate for those facing a public beheading, a form of execution that usually takes place in town squares, such as the one in the capital of Riyadh, known menacingly as “Chop Chop Square.”
There the condemned, usually dressed in white, kneels handcuffed and blindfolded facing in the direction of Mecca. If the public facility is not equipped with a drain in the center, a plastic tarp is spread around the prisoner to make cleaning up easier.
As the prisoner kneels, the executioner will pray with him or her before lightly jabbing their neck with the blade of the sword, an act which serves to make the prisoner stiffen upwards. Then, with a quick stroke, the head is cleaved from the body, whereupon both the body and head are placed on a stretcher and removed to a waiting van.
Unfortunately, many instances have been recorded in which the executioner misjudged his target, such as hitting the shoulder blade, or cutting only halfway through the neck, necessitating several swings to finish the job. In some cases, the head is stuck on a pole separately from the crucified torso and publicly displayed for several days.
While some truly unfortunate few will be crucified alive, dying a slow and painful death with hands and feet nailed with steel spikes to a wooden cross, beheadings remain by far the most popular Saudi form of execution.
In fact, Saudi Arabia, which has the highest execution rate per capita in the world, has reportedly beheaded 18 people so far in 2013 and over 80 people in each of the past two years.
Trying to keep up with that dizzying pace are Saudi government swordsmen, whose duties were graphically and chilling expressed by a Saudi executioner, Muhammad Saad al-Beshi, in an interview back in 2003.
Al-Beshi, who said at the time he beheads up to 10 people a day, began his career as a prison guard handcuffing and blindfolding condemned prisoners, a task in which he “developed a desire to be an executioner.” Recalling his first execution, al-Beshi said, “The criminal was tied and blindfolded. With one stroke of the sword I severed his head. It rolled meters away.”
Al-Beshi maintained that since he is doing God’s will, his work does not upset him, although he can’t say the same thing for those who watch him perform his deadly task.
According to al-Beshi, “There are many people who faint when they witness an execution. I don’t know why they come and watch if they don’t have the stomach for it. Me? I sleep very well.”
In addition to the four foot scimitar he uses to lop heads from shoulders, al-Beshi’s other tools of trade include a “special sharp knife” he utilizes to carry out amputations of convicted criminals, such as severing hands, feet and even tongues. According to al-Beshi, “When I cut off a hand, I cut it from the joint. If it is a leg, the authorities specify where it is to be taken off, so I follow that.”
While the Saudi committee’s recommendation to consider firing squads has not yet been government approved, it was recently taken out for a test run when the Saudi government executed seven young men by firing squad.
The men, who were arrested in 2006 and convicted of theft and armed robbery, had been sentenced to death in 2009, their bodies to be beheaded before their headless torsos then crucified.
While the barbarity of the sentence sparked international outrage, so did the fact that many of the men were not only juveniles at the time they were arrested but that they had also been reportedly tortured into confessing their crimes.
While the Saudi government still carried out the death sentence, it did change the method of execution, opting for a firing squad instead of a group beheading and crucifixion, a nod more toward assuaging international concerns than an acknowledgement of the barbarity of its Sharia-based justice system.
To that end, before carrying out the execution, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior released a statement which read:
The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.
That said, it’s difficult to fathom that any punishment in the afterlife will match the barbarity inflicted by the rulers of Saudi Arabia in the here and now. That is the true disgrace in this world.
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