Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil wealth, is among the harshest of places. The country, ruled by the House of Saud and from whence Islam sprang, is no country for women of cognizant mind, for they have no rights at all. They don't even have the casual liberty of driving a car, or blithely going outside unchaperoned. Human-rights violations are being carried out under the guise of battling homegrown terrorism, activists say. And the kingdom of nearly 30 million people is among the world's top executioners, along with China and Iran, according to figures from Amnesty International.
Capital punishment -- a barbaric act of state murder, for which there is scant evidence that it's a crime, deterrent and profoundly anathema to justice because there's no bringing the person back if they're later found innocent -- in Saudi Arabia is the most gruesome of all: the condemned are beheaded or shot by firing squad, their bodies often strung up in crucifixion for days. It adds to the continuing perception that the country is out of step with most of the rest of the humane world, where capital punishment has long been abolished.
Seven men were due to be executed in such atrocious style last month, with the added controversy surrounding their cases that some were teenagers when arrested over the armed robbery of a jewelry store in the southerly province of Asir in 2006, and that, according to Amnesty, their confessions were beaten out of them and -- preposterously -- they were not allowed to defend themselves in court, in itself debasing justice to that of a bumbling charade.
"They have since said they were severely beaten, denied food and water, deprived of sleep, forced to remain standing for 24 hours and then forced to sign 'confessions,'" the British human-rights group said. There was no immediate official reaction to the claim, although the Saudi government insists it does not engage in torture tactics.
"Saudi Arabia's legal system is fundamentally flawed. The fact that someone can be executed after, it seems, being tortured to 'confess' to a crime and as a result of a trial where no defence was allowed is, simply, illegal," Philip Luther, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa director, said.
Shortly before the executions were due to be carried out, the governor of Asir, Prince Faisal bin Khaled, called a halt to them and family members have said they were hopeful of a retrial. The Associated Press, quoting an unnamed Saudi official, reported that the executions were postponed only for a week. Other media outlets carried unsubstantiated accounts from relatives and friends of the condemned who claimed that the Saudi royal family had delayed the executions by a month and could order a new investigation and possible new trial.
The men were executed by firing squad in a public square in the southern city of Abha on March 13, in what Amnesty called "an act of sheer brutality." It released a recorded phone call with one of the condemened, who said:
I'm one of the seven prisoners to be executed. I have nine hours left until I die. We found this out through friends and relatives who saw the market square being prepared for the execution.
There are now seven spots in the square for seven people to be shot. It's going to be in public, in the market, in the city of Abha.
We don't know what we are supposed to have done wrong. We were forced to make confessions. We were mistreated by the investigators; they took our clothes and it was winter. They tortured us by suspending us from chains on the wall.
They also used psychological torture such as threatening they would bring in our mothers and torture them in front of us.
I didn't kill anyone -- we were tried for robbery and we were forced to confess. I hope the execution will be stopped.
I wish for it to be stopped and for a fair trial and for a reinvestigation. The trial was totally unjust.
Saudi Arabia has now executed 17 people so far this year, with more than 80 put to death last year and also in 2011 -- over triple the amount of people executed in 2010, according to Amnesty data. Abandoning your religion -- apostasy (Islam in this case) -- can bring about a death-penalty charge, as can dabbling in witchcraft, homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery and the more usual offenses of drugs crimes and murder, among others.
the New York-based Human Rights Watch said:
Saudi Arabia has no criminal code. Consequently, judges have wide discretion to impose sentences based on their personal interpretation of Sharia law and without taking into account previous rulings by other judges, so that people convicted of similar crimes may receive significantly different sentences. This wide discretion also allows Saudi judges to treat children as adults in criminal cases, and courts have imposed death sentences on children as young as 13.
"By continuing its liberal use of the death penalty, Saudi Arabia is making headlines for all the wrong reasons," deputy Middle East director Eric Goldstein said.
Dictatorial regimes generally do not care for, or about, public opinion -- at home or overseas -- and it is therefore unlikely that anything outside of an emboldened attempt at an Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia. After earlier attempts fizzled due to security clampdowns, although anti-government sentiment remains, will bring about any change in relation to abolishing the death penalty and guaranteeing the country's people that most basic of rights -- life -- even if they have committed a crime.
For a country that bases its laws and culture on the fundamental word of God, whom it believes gave it life, it is surely an extraordinary irony that it then plays the role of God in taking life away. It is perhaps yet another instance of the overarching hypocrisy of many aspects of religion.
King Abdullah was reportedly reviewing the Asir men's sentences, after last month approving their executions. It is shameful that he could not show mettle as a compassionate world leader and commute them.