Tardy executioners have prompted Saudi Arabia to re-evaluate their centuries-old practice of public beheadings.The use of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia is based on a hardline interpretation of Sharia (Islamic) law. The practice attracts international scorn because of the wide array of crimes which garner the death penalty, ranging from murder to witchcraft. Lose your head after your fourth theft, too.
After centuries of public beheadings, the kingdom is considering firing squads as an alternative means of execution. The New York Times reports that a special inter-ministerial committee recommended that the kingdom’s governing princes should have the option to utilize firing squads “because of the scarcity of swordsmen and their unavailability in a number of regions,” according to a statement from the committee.
That statement explained that the few “officially authorized” swordsmen were so busy traveling between different regions to conduct executions that they sometimes arrived late, “which causes security confusion” complicated by waves of “resulting spreading of rumors through modern technology”. Using local firing squads resolves those problems – and – lowers the executioners’ carbon footprint by eliminating regional travel.
Executioners use a scimitar that’s about four feet long. The condemned is dressed in white, blindfolded, and made to kneel in the direction of Mecca. Condemned women had been killed by firing squad until the 1990s, when authorities revised the rules, ushering in equal-opportunity beheadings.
The Telegraph cites a 2003 interview where executioner Mohammed Saad al-Beshi boasted that decapitation required a single swing of his blade. He told the Arab News, “I look after it and sharpen it once in a while, and I make sure to clean it of bloodstains. It’s very sharp. People are amazed how fast it can separate the head from the body.”
As an extra deterrent, headless bodies may also be crucified and displayed for several days.
Capital punishment has been used in almost every part of the world, but as of 2012, according to Amnesty International, only 10 percent of nations continue the practice. That’s 55 places where you pay the ultimate price for misbehaving and five of those conduct executions publically: Iran, North Korea, Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. And of these, only Saudi opts for beheadings.
In Riyadh, beheadings are held in a downtown public square equipped with a large drain in its center, expatriates call it “Chop Chop Square”. Eighteen people were beheaded in Riyadh this year; for the past two years, averages hovered around 75 per annum.
Although most Muslim scholars disagree, the kingdom has generally treated beheading by sword as the proper Islamic method of execution. It’s a literal interpretation of Medieval punishments described in the Koran, which also include cutting off thieves’ hands and stoning adulterers.
The special committee concluded that killing by gunfire “does not constitute a religious violation”.
Image of the execution of St. Catherine of Alexandria from Shutterstock