December 10 is Human Rights Day. On December 12, 2011, Saudi Arabian authorities ordered the execution of a woman convicted of practicing magic and sorcery. Although the Saudi Interior Ministry didn’t give details of the woman’s crime, the London-based al-Hayat newspaper quoted Abdullah al-Mohsen, chief of the religious police, who stated that the woman had tricked people, making them believe that she could cure them of a variety of ailments. It was an outrageous response to a serious crime.
“Despite the fact that I hate violence against women, when it comes to God’s will, I have to carry it out,” said Muhammad Saad al-Beshi, Saudi Arabia’s top executioner, during an interview with the Saudi daily Arab News. And with remarkable calm he added, “It doesn’t matter to me: two, four, ten – as long as I am doing God’s will, it doesn’t matter how many people I execute.”
Beheadings of women in Saudi Arabia didn’t start until the early 1990’s. Before then, they were shot. Up to the end of 2011, forty-nine women have been publicly beheaded, mainly in major cities such as Riyadh, Jeddah and Dahran. Executioners are proud of their job, which is handed down from one generation to the next. In Saudi Arabia, executioners use a traditional Arab scimitar approximately 44 inches long.
Many people consider the government headed by King Abdullah as reformist. After all, he was behind the decision to allow women to vote and in local elections, albeit in 2015. However, the World Economic Forum 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 130th out of 134 countries when considering gender parity issues. That same report ranked several Muslim countries such as Kyrgystan, Gambia and Indonesia significantly higher than Saudi Arabia on issues of women’s equality.
At the U.N. Third Millennium Summit in New York City in 2010, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdulla bin Abdul Aziz defended his country’s human rights conduct, stating that “It is absurd to impose on an individual or a society rights that are alien to its beliefs or principles.” However, his position is difficult to accept if one takes into account that Saudi Arabia has ratified the International Convention against Torture in October 1997, and has created the Human Rights First Society in 2002 and the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia in 2007.
Beheadings such as the one just carried out in Saudi Arabia don’t happen in that country alone. Similar ones have been carried out in countries such as Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait, Iran and United Arab Emirates. In no way, however, it can justify the use of a practice that has been severely criticized by several international human rights organizations.
Amnesty International, for example, has criticized Saudi Arabia not only for its execution but also for trials that are considered a mockery and don’t allow victims to properly defend themselves. Saudi Arabia, however, has consistently justified this behavior reminding critics of Saudi Arabia’s tradition and the humanity of its courts.
Beheading people, however, easily falls into what is widely considered as “cruel and unusual punishment,” a phrase that describes unacceptable punishment due to the suffering or humiliation it inflicts on the condemned person. These are the words that were used in the English Bill of Rights in 1689 and that later also appear in Article Five of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948 and in several other international conventions.
The 345 executions carried out in Saudi Arabia between 2007 and 2010 were all conducted by public and humiliating beheadings. Giving women the right to vote is an important measure. Giving women the right to their life and dignity is a much more significant one.