A Lack of Swordsmen May Lead Saudis to Abolish Beheadings

Saudi Arabia is considering the abolishment of execution by beheading in favor of death by firing squad

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Protesters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, hold pictures of Rizana Nafeek on Jan. 11, 2013, following her execution by Saudi authorities

Is this what progress looks like in Saudi Arabia? The kingdom is considering ending execution by beheading in favor of firing squads, reports the Egyptian English-language news website Ahram Online. A committee consisting of representatives from the Ministries of Interior, Justice and Health says there are shortages in government swordsmen and argue that a change to execution by firing squad would not violate Islamic law, the Saudi daily newspaper al-Youm writes. According to an official statement from the committee, “This solution seems practical, especially in light of shortages in official swordsmen or their belated arrival to execution yards in some incidents.”

Execution by beheading in Saudi Arabia has continually been condemned by human-rights groups. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 69 people were executed by beheading in 2012, while Amnesty International says 79 were killed under the death penalty in the same period. In 2012 HRW wrote, “Saudi Arabia has no penal code, so prosecutors and judges largely define criminal offenses at their discretion.” Rape, murder, armed robbery, drug trafficking and even suspected “sorcery” are punishable by death under Saudi Arabia’s Islamic law.

(MORE: Sri Lankan Maids Become Victims in Saudi Arabia)

The Saudi death penalty recently made headlines following the execution of Rizana Nafeek, a young Sri Lankan woman who was beheaded for the murder of her employers’ 4-month-old son. Nafeek arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2005 at age 17 but spent the next seven years in Saudi jails after the baby died under her care, writes CNN. The family of the boy believed he had been strangled by Nafeek, while she claimed he had choked on his milk. The young Sri Lankan immigrant had no access to a lawyer during her pretrial interrogation during which she said she was forced to sign a confession, notes CNN. The execution of this young woman revealed how “woefully out of step they [the Saudi justice system] are with their international obligations regarding the use of the death penalty,” said Philip Luther from Amnesty International. It highlighted how Saudi law tends to treat children as adults in criminal cases even though international law prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed before the age of 18, writes HRW.

A spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that Ban insists on the application of international human-rights law for all men and women in Saudi Arabia, regardless of their migration status or nationality. “We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to join the growing world’s movement away from the death penalty,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. However, representatives from Riyadh have rejected these calls as “external interference” and claim that Saudi Arabia “respects … all rules and laws and protects the rights of its people and residents,” writes Ahram Online.

MORE: In Saudi Arabia, Dissent Is Alive and Well, but Only Online or in Private