September 28, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5849

Article On Al-Jazeera America Website: Beheadings In Saudi Arabia Also Merit International Concern

September 28, 2014
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf | Special Dispatch No. 5849

The website of the U.S.-based Qatari TV channel Al-Jazeera America recently posted an article titled "Beheadings Remain Integral Part of Saudi Justice System." The article, by the site's digital producer Amel Ahmed, points out that Saudi Arabia sentences dozens of people to death by decapitation every year, for violent and even non-violent crimes, and metes out violent punishments even to political activists, as a means of stifling dissent. However, it says, while the beheadings carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria sparked worldwide outrage, analysts and activists complain that Saudi Arabia's death penalty policy is largely ignored by the international community. This includes the U.S., which does not take advantage of its good relations with the Kingdom to urge human rights reforms.

It should be mentioned that this website contains numerous articles critical of Saudi Arabia, reflecting the currently strained relations between the two countries. In the recent year, tensions between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors peaked, and in March 2014 the Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE even recalled their ambassadors from Qatar, in protest over Qatar's policy, which, they said, was detrimental to the Gulf's security and stability. The three countries' anger was sparked by Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its activists in Egypt and in the Gulf itself, and by its foreign policy on the issues of Iran, the Syrian regime, and Hizbullah, which is often at odds with the policy of other Gulf states. A major source of discord was the Al-Jazeera channel itself, which serves as a mouthpiece of Qatari positions and policy.

The following are excerpts from Amel Ahmed's article.[1]

Saudis Given A Free Pass By Americans

"The beheading of Pakistani national Izzat Gul for drug trafficking was Saudi Arabia's 46th such execution for 2014, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). In August alone, Saudi Arabia decapitated 19 people, eight of them for nonviolent offenses, including sorcery, the rights group added.

"While the beheading of ISIS captives James Foley and Steven Sotloff provoked global outrage, human rights groups decry the limited international attention given to Saudi Arabia's use of decapitation even for nonviolent crimes — a punishment so routine that Deera Square in Riyadh is sometimes referred to as 'Chop Chop Square.' U.S. President Barack Obama failed to raise 'a single human rights issue' with Riyadh during his trip to Saudi Arabia in March, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at HRW. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia on Thursday to discuss U.S. strategy to combat Islamic State fighters in the region. In press briefings ahead of the trip, there were no indication that the issue of human rights would be brought up. There are a lot of interests at play in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, including economic and geostrategic issues as well as counterterrorism," Coogle said. 'Unfortunately, the U.S. prioritized these other interests over using its close relationship to push the Saudi government to make human rights reforms.'

"Coogle said Saudi Arabia executes, on average, about 100 people a year, most via beheading, noting that the kingdom orders the death penalty as the sentence for a number of nonviolent offenses, including drug crimes, adultery and practices it deems witchcraft. The kingdom has one of the world’s highest execution rates, according to Death Penalty Worldwide, an organization that collects information on executions."

Dissenters Get Draconian Punishments

"Part of [the] rights groups' concern is that Riyadh is using violent forms of punishment to quash dissent. Gul’s execution came shortly after a court decision last week upholding a 10-year jail sentence and 1,000 lashes — meted out in weekly installments of 50 lashes — against blogger Raef Badawi, who was charged with 'insulting Islam' and 'going beyond the realm of obedience.' A Saudi news agency reported Badawi's conviction in March for his connection to 'reformists' and for his tweets 'against the rulers, religious scholars and government agencies.' His lawyer, Waleed Abu Alkhair — currently in jail facing similar charges — told the BBC that his client's charges concerned statements posted online calling for a relaxation of Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam. Amnesty International has designated Badawi a prisoner of conscience, 'detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.' 'Badawi's harsh sentence shows how little tolerance there is for any sort of expression that doesn’t jibe with the Saudi government’s official prescribed narrative,' Coogle said, adding that the sentence is 'very consistent' with other penalties levied against liberals and human rights activists...

"The kingdom’s legal system relies on a hard-line reading of Islamic law, or Sharia, by religious judges who, according to Coogle, often rely on 'ad-hoc interpretations. Judges have leeway to criminalize all kinds of things,' he said. 'It's completely left to the discretion of judges, within parameters of Islamic law, to state what the crime is and also the intended punishment.'

"In February, Saudi Arabia enacted a new Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, legislation that some critics warn is vague and could be used to penalize anyone who criticizes the Saudi establishment. Over the last two months, Saudi courts sentenced to death five religious leaders and activists who participated in protests demanding constitutional reform. All five were charged and convicted on terrorism charges under the new legislation. The new laws 'turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism,' said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch...

"Additional provisions in the new laws include the criminalization of unorthodox beliefs and atheism, participating in any form of protest against the government and attending conferences in or outside Saudi Arabia that 'sow discord' in society. Despite the criticism of foreign human rights groups, any reforms are more likely to originate in the corridors of power, said Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor... He added, 'The Saudi elite is well aware that with an increasingly middle-class and educated public, the old form of absolute monarchy will be difficult to keep going.'"

[1], September 11, 2014. The text has been lightly edited for clarity.

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