When will the barbarity of beheading end in Saudi Arabia?

Published: October 17, 2014
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There are approximately 4,000 Pakistanis languishing in Saudi prisons, facing trial. PHOTO: STOCK IMAGE

Savagery and barbarity still exists in the present era of enlightenment; where the days of ignorance of Arabia and the dark ages of Europe and the Roman era still lurk in the shadows of today. It is when a state sponsored beheading rears its ugly head that we are reminded of the remnants of brutality seen during the dark ages gone by, that we seem to have adopted today.

In 2011, at least 82 executions were carried out in Saudi Arabia; more than triple the figure of at least 27 executions in 2010. In 2012, a similar number of people were executed. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed their concern last month over a surge in executions, which saw 19 people being beheaded between August 4th and 20th alone. The HRW stated that eight of those executed had been convicted for non-violent offences such as drug trafficking and “sorcery”, and described the use of the death penalty in their cases as “particularly egregious”. Rape, murder, apostasy, drug smuggling, sorcery, witchcraft, armed robbery are all punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

A prime example of the flawed Saudi criminal justice system is the case of Abdullah Fandi al-Shammari who was found guilty of manslaughter in 1988 for an alleged killing that took place in 1983. He was released after paying compensation to the family but in 1990 the case was sent to court for a retrial by the Supreme Court. He was rearrested and tried for the same crime but on murder charges. He spent 30 years on death row and was executed last year. Shammari had no access to the file or to any legal assistance, and was not able to appeal against the sentence before it was confirmed by the court of cassation.

Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, said,

“This case has thrown the country’s flawed justice system into especially sharp relief, highlighting the serious lack of transparency, patently unfair trials, and fatal results.”

Similarly, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, Rizana Nafeek, was beheaded for allegedly killing a baby in her care. She was only 17 at the time of her execution. This is against the jus cogens principle of international law and in contravention of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to which Saudi Arabia is a party to. The CRC prohibits the execution of those less than 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the alleged offence for which they are convicted. Hence, it would not be an exaggeration to say that there is lack of transparency, and no legal standards of prosecution are met, even for cases involving punishments as severe as death. The convicted may be denied legal assistance and despite spending a large proportion of the sentence in prison, they may still be executed.

Christof Heyns, the UN special reporter on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said,

“Despite several calls by human rights bodies, Saudi Arabia continues to execute individuals with appalling regularity and in flagrant disregard of international law standards. The trials are by all accounts grossly unfair. Defendants are often not allowed a lawyer and death sentences were imposed following confessions obtained under torture. The method of execution then aggravates a situation that is already totally unacceptable.”

Two days ago, another Pakistani, named Mohammad Yunus Mohammed Shoaib was executed in the Eastern province of Qatif for hiding heroin in his gut and smuggling it into Saudi Arabia.

His decapitation takes the number of people executed by sword in the conservative Gulf nation to 57 this year, compared to 79 people in all of 2013.

Earlier this year, two Pakistanis, Abrar Hussein Nizar Hussein and Zahid Khan Barkat, were executed after being convicted for drug smuggling. The former was executed in the Red Sea city of Jeddah and the latter in Qatif.

There are approximately 4,000 Pakistanis languishing in Saudi prisons, facing trial. It is highly ignominious that no legal or consular access is provided to the detainees and the incumbent government is taking little responsibility to ensure that its citizens are provided with legal and humanitarian assistance. Regardless of whatever crime they may have committed, each individual has a right to a fair trial and no one can be deprived of the basic, inalienable human right. There are many who would indulge in the unnecessary debate of whether death penalty should be abolished for such crimes or not, while totally ignoring the fact that no matter how guilty a person may be, he or she cannot be deprived of the right to a fair trial and due process of law.

The law, as it stands in Saudi Arabia, is the strictest interpretation of Shariah, and though some may argue that it has effectively controlled crime, one wonders about the fair trial guarantees. As William Blackstone propounds,

“The law holds that it is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”

This is a globally accepted legal maxim. And therefore, it is the duty of the Pakistani government and the consulate in Saudi Arabia to ensure that the detainees are accorded due protection of law, especially those who are waiting on death row. It must be guaranteed that women and children be detained only as a means of last resort and not in a prison like environment which can be injurious to their mental and physical wellbeing.

The reality of human rights abuses within the Saudi criminal justice system is no secret and hence no stone must be left unturned to ensure protection of fundamental human rights of the detainees and those who are innocent to be freed. The governments of India and Bangladesh have managed to get many detainees free but no serious efforts are being made by the Pakistani government in this regard. The human rights organisations and civil society are also unmoved by the beheadings of their fellow countrymen.

It is about time that this nation wakes from slumber and strives to protect fundamental human rights of the citizens of Pakistan, both within and outside the country. Who knows who may fall prey to this injustice one day, without even being given a fair trial. Hence, it is the duty of not only the government but of every citizen of the country to stand united against this gross, flagrant and mass violation of fundamental human rights.

Ayesha Siddique Khan

Ayesha Siddique Khan

A barrister at law from Lincoln's Inn London and has LLM in International Protection of Human Rights Law from University of London.

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