Cruel & unusual punishment in the Middle East

Saudi Arabia's crucifixion of criminals raises curtain on brutal punishments

Old rope with hangman’s noose (illustrative). (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Old rope with hangman’s noose (illustrative).
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
In Saudi Arabia, crucifixion is no relic of the ancient past. This was made evident earlier this month when the body of Elias Jamaleddeen—whose head was sewn back onto his shoulders following decapitation—was publicly displayed in Mecca.
Jamaleddeen was convicted of murder and his cruel and unusual punishment was reportedly endorsed by King Salman.
A quick scan of Youtube reveals a hoard of videos of gruesome killings that are common in some Middle East countries. In one, a Yemeni man lies flat on his stomach on a rug placed in the center of a busy street. Surrounded by soldiers with automatic rifles and an even bigger crowd of civilian bystanders, the man is shot in the back at point-blank range.
Other clips show people being publicly stoned to death, beheaded and hanged from cranes.
“Executions are rampant in several countries within the Middle East,” Oluwatosin Popoola, an advisor on the death penalty to Amnesty International, asserted to The Media Line. He stressed that sadistic punishments are often meted out after unfair or politically-motivated trials, adding that “countries are secretive in the release of information regarding executions.”
As such, Amnesty International and other rights groups rely on a network of activists, lawyers and media agencies to gather information.
According to these reports, Iran and Saudi Arabia executed the greatest number of people last year in the region. Whereas Riyadh is estimated to have carried out at least 146 executions, Tehran put to death more than 500 people. By contrast, other Muslim countries such as Lebanon and Qatar have not executed anyone since 2004 and 2003, respectively.
Analysts attribute the discrepancy between these nations in part to varying interpretations of, and levels of adherence to, Islamic Sharia law, as well as degrees of authoritarianism.
Tehran has been accused of executing prisoners without prior notice and without informing their families. “But most of the executions in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia go through formal legal systems and are performed in front of the public,” Popoola explained.
He believes that executions are often implemented for political reasons, noting that Jamaleddeen’s crucifixion immediately followed Canada's rebuke of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
One of the stark differences between Muslim countries and others that practice forms of westernized criminal law is the manner in which the systems define capital offenses.
In the United States, for example, an individual can receive the death penalty for espionage, rape of a child, treason and aircraft hijacking, among other non-death-related crimes. Muslim countries might sentence people to death for drug trafficking, religious heresy, homosexuality and adultery.
Some countries like Saudi Arabia execute people for witchcraft and apostasy, the renunciation of one's religion. Israa al-Ghomgham, a female Saudi activist, and four others currently are facing the death penalty in the kingdom for charges ranging from incitement to protest to providing moral support to rioters.
“Even though some countries like Saudi Arabia have not signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, they are still bound by an international standard of criminal law," Lama Fakih, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line.
In Saudi Arabia, some groups are exempt from receiving the death penalty, such as pregnant women or those with young offspring; this, because such action would infringe upon the rights of children set forth in the Koran and associated scripture. Mentally ill people are likewise generally not executed, in addition to juvenile offenders although there is a religious debate over whether youth can be put to death.
According Amnesty International's Popoola, there is significant support for executions in many Middle East countries. For example, Imran Ali Balouch, a librarian in Riyadh, believes his nation's strict justice system is essential.
“Everything is alright in this beautiful country, as this is the way Muslims live,” he conveyed to The Media Line. “We understand because we are all Muslim.”
He did, however, concede that executions instill fear among the public, a condition he considers necessary in order to ensure Islamic law and traditions are upheld.
David Lee is a student intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program