Following are excerpts from a TV debate on the death penalty in the Arab world, which aired on Abu Dhabi TV on January 28, 2009.
TV host: Professionalism is the key to success, and in the case of the stroke of a sword, success depends on concentration. Concentrate with us on the following report from Saudi Arabia.
Saudi executioner Abdallah Al-Bishi: I inherited the job from my late father. At first, I used to accompany him. On my first mission, I was terrified. I wasn't afraid that the execution would fail. No. I was worried that if I failed, the people there would laugh at me. Any executioner who wants to work in this field must know how to apply the theoretical knowledge. If he knows how to stand next to the person he is executing, how to concentrate on the blow, and how to land it, the rest is easy.
At work, if I let myself feel mercy or compassion for the person I am executing, he will not die at the first stroke. He will suffer. If the heart is compassionate, the hand fails. It can take two, three, four, or five strokes. God knows how many. He might not even die. If the heart is compassionate – that's it. The hand cannot function properly. Your hand betrays you. Once the mission is done, I feel relieved. I come home relaxed. I play with the children. We have fun. We have lunch. Sometimes we go out. Other times, we stay at home. Everything is normal. It has no effect on me.
Abdallah Al-Bishi's son: We sit with him and have fun together. Sometimes, we join him for an execution. The first time I went there, I was frightened. When the first guy was executed, I stood at bit towards the back, but when I saw that there was nothing to it, and that there was no reason to be afraid, I came in closer to watch. There was no problem.
Abdallah Al-Bishi: Once I took with me one of my children, who is not here right now. I had to chop off the hand of a thief, and I took him with me. I took Muhammad, who is younger than Faysal. After we returned, he went to school, and all his friends gathered around him. He said to them: I saw how the hand of a thief was chopped off, and so on. The school principal called to thank me for explaining this to my son, who, in turn, explained it to the other students. This way they learned that a thief gets his hand chopped off.
As for swords – there are all kinds. There are "Jowhar" swords – and Indian one and an Egyptian one. There are different kinds. The best is the Indian "Jowhar." I have this "Sultan" sword. This is my favorite sword, because it is the first I worked with, after my training. Praise God, this is the "Sultan." This is a great sword. There is also the Indian "Jowhar." Praise God. You can use it up to ten times in a row, and nothing happens to it. This is another "Jowhar" sword, but of lesser quality, but it’s also good.
Saudi executioner Abdallah Ahmad Bakhit Al-Ghamedi: None of these executions have ever affected me. They have no effect on me at home, on the street, or with my family and friends.
Abdallah Al-Bishi This work is not about physical force. It is more about mental concentration.
Abdallah Ahmad Bakhit Al-Ghamedi: I had to execute three women. I did all three with a sword. One I executed in Riyadh and two in Dammam, and there was a fourth one, who I executed by shooting here, in Jedda. It’s a little more difficult to execute a woman than a man. With a man, his neck is exposed down to his chest. With a woman, it's different, because she is completely covered, head covering, robe, and gloves included. A narrow opening is left at the neck. A skilled executioner goes in with the sword right through this opening. If the sword lands a little lower, it hits the robe, and if it lands above it, it hits her head covering. This may cause her more pain. I did this three times, and it went fine, thank God. It was not that difficult.
In this profession, nothing happens by chance. We carry out Allah's punishments. It would be difficult to carry out executions just like that. This requires concentration and deliberation. Naturally, you have to want to do it, and you must have strong faith in Allah.
Head of the Lebanese Association for Human Rights Nemeh Joumaa: An execution is the taking away of the life of a human being irrevocably. This is the ending of a life that was given by Allah, and should be taken only by the Creator.
Lamri Chirouf, Amnesty International: According to 2007 statistics, the Middle East countries executed at least 552 people. That year, the number of executions throughout the world was 1,200. Of the 552 executions, 523 were carried out in four countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iraq.
99% of the executions are for murder and drug-related offenses. Approximately 50% were in drug cases, and 50% in murder cases. The concept of qisas [execution for murder] is very broad, which allows the judges to sentence people to death very easily. It seems that in some of these countries, this is related to customs of blood vengeance, which have nothing to do with justice. These customs diminish the value of a human being who has erred, without delving into detail in an attempt to prove these crimes. For instance, the concept of killing is unclear. What constitutes intentional killing? There is no consensus about it. What constitutes killing in self-defense? What constitutes premeditated murder? All these are considered simply "killing."
Egyptian MP Subhi Saleh: Does this execution method need to become more humane? This method is more humane than execution by hanging. In hanging, a man is hung by a rope, and it takes a while for him to die. In some cases, he loses control of his bodily functions – his urine and feces. In my view, being executed by sword is the same as being executed by gunshot.
Egyptian hangman ["Ashmawi"] Hussein Urni: I chose this profession because a hangman executes the word of Allah in this world. The hangman exacts retribution from the criminal, because the victim cannot do it himself. I chose this profession out of faith in Allah. I believe I will be rewarded in this world and in the world to come, because I restore the rights of the oppressed. The word "Ashmawi" is derived from the name of the first executioner – Ahmad Al-'Ashmawi. People say "Ashmawi," but the official title is "District Hangman" – the hangman who carries out the death sentence in this district.
A person does not become an "Ashmawi" just like that. He needs to observe people carrying out executions, and then he develops an inclination towards it. He needs to want to do it. Nobody can be forced to do this job. He needs to want to do it, and then he accompanies them year after year, until there is an execution, and someone just retired – and so he replaces him. One hangman is replaced by another hangman. I replaced one of my colleagues, and now I am teaching another colleague. I accompany him now as a supervisor. The first time it is a little difficult, the second time it gets a little easier, but from then on, it becomes run-of-the-mill. It's not different than a cameraman. That's his job, and he likes it. Like anyone who is trying to make a living, he goes to work, and prepares the chains and the ropes.
Since 1990, I have personally carried out about 850-870 executions. We have a notebook in which we list... We have large chambers – large enough for three, five, or seven people. There's no room for emotions or feelings of injustice, and so on. I do my job to the best of my ability, and that's it. I don't go into the details. I don't even know the reason for the execution. When I go out, they tell me.
My line of work as an executioner has no effect on my personal life. The proof is that people come up to me on the street... You'd have thought people would consider an executioner to be grumpy. A man's job is one thing, and his personal life is another. The first time children came to my kids at school... Once, they saw my picture in a newspaper, and the kids wanted to be friends with my children, and were proud of them because their father was a celebrity.
Ahmad, son of Hussein Urni: I want to be like my father. I know that he only hangs people who have done something wrong. I want to hang people like he does.
Hussein Urni: I hope that one of my children will follow in my footsteps.
Ahmad: In school we are treated normally. Sometimes, my friends want to be closer to me, because my dad is an "Ashmawi." I am the only one whose dad is an executioner, so they call me "Ashmawi." When I get into trouble, I usually tell my dad. This is how they raised me. He doesn't beat me. I'm used to telling him everything that happens, good or bad.
Hussein Urni: The night before an execution, I go and sleep there. I wake up in the morning, carry out the execution, and go home, as if nothing happened, as if I just got back from a walk. When I get back, I hang out with my friends. I drink tea with one friend, coffee with another... We play backgammon... The other business is over and done with. That's one thing, and this is another. Even if the death penalty is abolished all over the world, it will still be implemented in Egypt. This is my opinion. When the punishment is light, some people become more criminal. May Allah protect us from disease. That's all I ask for. God's protection is the most important thing. As for disease, I hope that when it is my time to go, I will go healthy.