Why, I ask myself, am I spending more time than ever in 25 years covering the Middle East cataloguing the barbarity, torture, hangings, head-choppings and human rights abuses of the region? No, I'm not talking about Israel's death squads, its vile torture apparatus at the Russian compound in Jerusalem and its shoot-to-kill army, some units of which are turning into an indisciplined rabble. I'm talking about the blind, cruel, vindictive Muslim regimes of the Middle East; because I'm beginning to ask myself if there isn't something uniquely terrible about the way they treat their people, the way they kill their people, the way they abuse them and flog them and string them up.
Let's start low-key. Last month, an Egyptian court sentenced Saadeddin Ibrahim, the Cairo intellectual and human-rights campaigner, to seven years in prison for spreading "false reports" abroad about electoral fraud and religious persecution and for receiving illegal foreign donations. Now I happen to know Saadeddin. He is a palpably honest, decent man. At his hearing in a state security court, for heaven's sake every charge against him was disproved with documentary evidence. The so-called "foreign donations" came again, don't gasp from the European Union. But he got seven years.
Now let's go to the other end of horror. The scene is the Tehran suburb of Khak e-Sefid on 19 March this year. A young woman called Fariba Tajiani Emamqoli has been sentenced to death for drug-trafficking, along with four other men. She is led out in front of a baying crowd, blindfolded and manacled, begging desperately for her life. But senior police officers ignore her. Along with her four male companions, 30-year-old Fariba is strung up from one of five cranes and spends 10 minutes choking to death before a crowd of 500 people along with others who had gathered to watch from their rooftops who shriek "death to dealers" as her body sways above the streets.
Down in Saudi Arabia, where public execution is a fine art, they're well on their way to meeting last year's rich crop of 113 public beheadings. A week ago, three Saudis Sotam al-Dhouibi, Majid al-Dahiri and Hamad al-Matiri were beheaded with a sword in Qassim province for theft and male rape. Guilty or not and the kingdom's trials are a mockery of justice our friends the Saudis are second only to the merciless Saddam when it comes to butchering their people in public. Then there's the other refinement of Saudi sadism: "cross amputation" (the chopping off of right hand and left foot for supposed crimes), a cruelty visited upon seven men, three of them Nigerian, in the first half of last year.
Yes of course, Saddam still tops the cruelty league women are hanged on Tuesdays (with Thursdays as an optional extra if the hangman is too busy the previous Tuesday) in Baghdad. And Saddam prefers to do most of his massacres in private. The Syrians do their hanging in private and only now are the political prisons beginning to open. One of their most recent liberations was that of a journalist who had spent 30 years in a dungeon. Even little Lebanon is now accused by Amnesty International of the increasing use of torture, with one report recording the use of the back-breaking "German chair" a filthy instrument originally perfected by the East Germans in Damascus on victims.
What does it represent, this behaviour by the states of the Middle East? Yes, I know the Americans are poisoning, frying or shooting their condemned prisoners at a ferocious rate. And of course, I know about "sharia" law. I've heard more than I want to know about its severity. But what about the mercy and compassion that are among the first words of the Koran? In Arab and Iranian homes, Muslim families exhibit infinitely more compassion and love than Westerners. They don't send their elderly and incurably sick to die in nursing institutions. The old and the fatally ill spend their last days in their family homes, cared for to the end by relatives. Shame on us. But how come the same men and women can stand on a rooftop to scream at a woman strangling on a rope?
Chibli Mallat, a prominent member of the anti-death penalty commission in Lebanon, dismisses the idea that brutality in the region is rooted in the "soul of the people", even though Hajaj ben Youssis, the ancient ruler of Baghdad, wrote about "pure power", a tradition that Saddam has followed. And Yasser Arafat the "super-terrorist" who became a "super-statesman" and is about to be turned into a "super-terrorist" again certainly learnt Ben Youssis's principles when he needed them. When Arafat had a collaborator, Alanbadi Odeh, publicly shot in Nablus on 13 January this year, there were the usual delighted shouts from a mob of Palestinians that "God is great" to send the man on his way to eternity.
Chibli doesn't think this is endemic. "I think we lost a lot of our liberalism in the 1930s under colonialism because the (British and French) mandatory powers distorted the meaning of democracy," he says. "In Syria and Egypt, the decent, democratic liberals couldn't get into government. So people learned that they had to use the 'putsch'. And so, after the colonial powers, we got dictators. And they want power. Today, one of our Lebanese judges, Hassan Kawas, has become revolted by judicial killings. He's against them now. We want to put our compassion into legal means to end this. But we are blocked by governments that want strong power."
I wonder about this. I wonder not so much about power but about the dark, undocumented complicity of dictators with their people. The Palestinian mob that screamed with joy at Odeh's execution loved Arafat. When Tunisia targets its human-rights defenders, the people are silent. When human-rights groups are put on trial in Morocco, the people are silent. Lebanon, which is not a dictatorship and hosts tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, has reportedly sent 300 asylum-seekers back to their countries of origin in the past nine months, including an Iraqi, Ammar Kazim Shams, who was recognised as a refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Jordan currently wants to send Abdul al-Ridha al-Ibrahimi, an Iraqi army deserter whose family have already been tormented by Saddam's thugs back to Baghdad. If they do, say goodbye to Mr Al-Ibrahimi.
And so it goes on. And for the most part unless it happens to involve Saddam the Americans and British and French, those supposed upholders of human rights, stay silent. Why? But even more to the point, how did the Muslim Middle East produce this cruelty? Meanwhile, before you go, just one more execution. A 35-year-old Iranian woman was stoned to death in a Tehran jail this month for allegedly acting in obscene films. But not to worry. She was buried up to her shoulders for execution so the stones could not touch her breasts. And only the prison guards watched.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd