The Saudis have made themselves even more unpopular after decapitating or shooting 47 prisoners last week. Critics are calling them, “the white ISIS.”
The men, Sunni and Shia, had been convicted of “terrorism,” belonging to al-Qaida, drug offenses, or membership in proscribed Shia groups. All but two of them were Saudi citizens.
Most prominent among the victims was a well-known Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr whose crime, it seems, was having called for democratic elections in feudal Saudi Arabia and rights for its Shia minority, about 15% of the population. Last year, the Saudis executed 157 prisoners, mostly by cutting off their heads.
China is the world’s leader in executions. Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Singapore rank high. In the western world, Texas is still lord high executioner, with 13 prisoners killed last year.
The death penalty is banned across most of Europe. In Russia, it has been suspended. However, Muslim independence fighters in southern Russia are routinely gunned down without any legal due process.
The Saudi monarchy has long used the public death penalty as a means of repressing dissent and efforts to end or reform its feudal system. Government opponents and members of the kingdom’s Shia minority are routinely framed and face kangaroo courts. Many political opponents are accused of drug crimes and executed. The kingdom’s restive Shia minority, which looks to Iran, has been largely kept in line by draconian punishments. The same applies to neighboring Bahrain, a Saudi protectorate.
Saudi Arabia’s principal method of execution still remains the sword, though firing squads are being more frequently used. Decapitation by sword is a traditional method of execution in Arabia and certainly serves as a disincentive to observers, as it is intended.
Decapitation is supposed to be swift and only briefly painful – provided it is done professionally and flawlessly. Unfortunately, it is often bungled and becomes a horrible torture.
Reading the fascinating memoires of Sanson, France’s royal executioner, we learn that decapitations by sword and ax more often than not required numerous blows, while the victim screamed in terror and agony. Neck muscles go rigid, hair gets in the way, and victim’s instinctively contract their necks, making the task all the more difficult.
As a result, a French scientist, who opposed the death penalty, Dr. Guillotine, designed a rapid killing machine that he believed would be painless and swift. His machine, the guillotine, became the primary means of execution during the French Revolution. France used the guillotine until 1977. Germany also used it during World War II.
Electrocution can be worse than mechanical decapitation. The victim is often burned alive or fried by high voltage. The gas chamber also a primitive form of killing. Chemical execution, now favored in the US and even China, is also an often unpredictable means of killing, and can be very painful.
So is hanging, if not expertly done. Most victims slowly strangle to death over 10-20 minutes. When Saddam Hussein was lynched in Iraq, his head was ripped off his body. His Shia and American jailers may have done this one purpose.
This leaves the old-fashioned bullet in the back of the head – the favored method of Soviet executioners. Shooting, by pistol, rifle or firing squad, has always seemed to me the most reliable method of execution.
But the Saudis, who have one of the world’s biggest military arsenals, still prefer their scimitars. They appear to believe they are following ancient Arab custom and Koranic justice, but the rest of the world is appalled by such brutal behavior.
Equally important, the executions undermine plans by the new Saudi monarch, King Salman, and his hot-headed son, 30-year old Prince Mohammed, to become the dominant political and military force in the Mideast, under US tutelage, of course. A major power struggle is underway in the Saudi royal family between the Salman camp and the much more cautious old guard.
The Saudi invasion of Yemen, and support for rebels in Syria and Iraq, may yet prove a grave mistake that threatens the very future of the sword-wielding desert kingdom.