Daily Mail: As family days out go, it must rank among the most macabre. It is Sunday breakfast time in a city in the Gulf, a busy square has been cleared and men, women and children sip cool drinks in the morning sun as they wait for the main event. There is never much advance notice but those in the know gather just before 9am, the time for public beheadings.
A police van arrives and a prisoner in white robes is dragged from it by eight officers. The executioner is waiting. He is carrying a four-foot curved silver sword. The condemned man is forced to kneel facing Mecca, and the executioner tests his blade by running it lightly across the prisoner’s exposed neck, making him flinch. There is a drain in the ground to collect the blood.
As the crowd falls silent, the executioner raises his sword, then powers it down on to the kneeling man’s neck, slicing through skin, muscle and bone. The head rolls away; the body topples to the ground.
The victim, a Pakistani man convicted of drug offences, is fortunate the cut was clean. Yet the horror continues. The man’s head is put in a bag and attached to his body with rope. Then the corpse, head dangling, is hoisted on a crane and left to fester in the square for up to three days.
This execution took place not under the regime of Islamic State but in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia — a key ally of Britain and America and the only place in the world where such public justice is meted out for crimes ranging from murder to, in the case of several fortune tellers last year, ‘performing magic’. Such is its appetite for beheadings, the country has been advertising for eight new executioners to meet demand.
So far this year 89 people have been beheaded in public, surpassing the estimated tally of 87 in the whole of 2014. About half of last year’s victims were Saudi; the others were from Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, India, Indonesia, Burma, Chad, Eritrea, the Philippines and Sudan. Locals are encouraged to take their children to the place of execution in ‘Chop Chop Square’, as this area of Riyadh is nicknamed, so they grow up knowing the dire consequences of breaking the law.
There are currently fears that a Saudi blogger named Raif Badawi, whose plight has caused international outrage, may yet be condemned to a public death. He was arrested in June 2012 and charged with ‘cyber crime’ and disobeying his father, who had asked him to stop working on a news website critical of Saudi laws.
Mr. Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and a decade in prison for insulting Islam, but may be retried for the crime of renouncing the religion. This carries a death sentence and would result in his beheading.
In truth, Saudi executioners are rarely short of work, thanks to the country’s strict adherence to a hardline strand of Islam called Wahhabism, whose followers adhere to puritanical beliefs that prescribe death for apostates, not to mention gays, adulterers and drug users. Punishment is decided by judges who work without any penal code, guided only by Allah.
Traditionally, the role of executioner has been passed down through families from father to son, and it is rare for so many jobs to be created at the same time.
The new recruits will be classed as ‘religious functionaries’. Each will be given his traditional scimitar, which costs £2,600, by the government and trained by beheading live sheep provided by the civil service. The recruitment advert, on Saudi Arabia’s civil service website, stresses that no qualifications are necessary but successful applicants must perform ‘execution orders according to Islamic Sharia rules’.
They will also be ‘responsible for implementing the Penalty of Theft by severing the hand’ — that is, public amputation for thieves who have committed up to three offences (four and they are beheaded). Right hand amputation applies in cases of theft, whereas cross amputation — right hand and left foot — is prescribed for highway robbery.
Other duties may include stoning to death adulterers and surgically paralysing offenders under the strict eye-for-an-eye legal policy. Stoning victims are typically buried up to their waist or neck, unable to fend off the stones hurled at their head by a crowd of bystanders until they slowly die. Penal amputations are carried out by the same executioners hired for beheadings, but using a knife.
Although eye-gouging is a sentence often handed down in Saudi Arabia, there are no instances recorded in the West of it being carried out in the past ten years.
The upsurge in beheadings this year follows a rise in crime. Total crime rates rose more than 100 per cent between 2012 and 2013, the last year for which figures are available.
The number of sex crimes reported remains relatively low — not least because under Islamic law the rape victim is punished for ‘adultery’, with documented cases of traumatised women being lashed and jailed after being sexually assaulted. At the same time, drug use and street robberies are becoming more widespread in a state once regarded as virtually crime-free.
Beheadings are not televised but executioners have given interviews to TV shows. One came straight from a beheading, informing his audience that ‘if the heart is compassionate, the hand fails’. Executioner Saad al-Beshi also discussed his skills with a scimitar, stressing that it is vital to take one strong, confident swing. It is believed that cleanly beheaded prisoners suffer almost immediate unconsciousness and death. But unfortunately for Saudi’s convicted prisoners, not all Saad al-Beshi’s colleagues are as skillful.
This year, horrific footage taken by someone in the crowd was leaked showing the bungled execution of a woman accused of murdering her step-daughter. She is heard shrieking ‘I did not kill! I did not kill!’ as police officers force her to kneel in front of the executioner. He tells her to ‘praise God’ but fails to sever her head with the first blow and has to hack twice more before the grisly deed is done.
The international outcry that ensued prompted the Saudi authorities not to amend their methods but only to hunt down the man who leaked the mobile phone footage.
Saudi Arabia has been touchy about public executions since the release in 1980 of a British TV drama-documentary, Death Of A Princess, which told the true story of how a young Saudi princess and her lover were executed for adultery. It caused a diplomatic spat, with London’s ambassador to Riyadh ordered to leave the country and British Airways Concorde flights banned from Saudi airspace.
More recently, the country was quick to dismiss global appeals, including a letter from Prince Charles, to spare the life of a 17-year-old Sri Lankan maid accused of choking a baby to death.
With a population of just 28 million, Saudi Arabia is beaten only by China, North Korea and Iran for the number of people it puts to death. But while Iran and China normally use firing squads, Saudi Arabia has rejected calls to end beheadings.
For all its wealth and air-conditioned shopping malls, it is a deeply conservative country where alcohol, nightclubs and even cinemas are banned, and strict moral codes are imposed on the people by an army of secret agents working for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. This hated force of up to 5,000 officers patrol the streets ensuring that women are covered from head to toe, there is strict separation between the sexes at all times, and no one is holding secret parties.
Often uneducated but from religious families, these ‘moral police’ are often the dreaded first point of contact for those who end up being put to death. They have powers arbitrarily to detain offenders — such as men and women walking together who are not married or blood relatives — and to shut down businesses caught opening during Muslim prayer times or selling haram — forbidden — items such as Western music.
The executioners advertisement, which anyone can download, even promises successful applicants an attractive benefits package including a housing allowance and six months’ sick leave on full pay. And one lethally sharp sword.