Chop Chop Square
Where capital punishment is a public spectacle
image by Matt Rota / www.mattrotasart.com
A slender sword—four feet of shining steel, curved at the end—hovers high above a kneeling figure shrouded in white. Only the kneeler’s neck is exposed. Sixty or so men watch from the edge of a granite courtyard, behind a patchy line of eight soldiers in tan uniforms. The man wielding the sword looms high, almost spectral, in a flowing white dishdasha and a red-checked head cloth. He is ready to swing but then steps back. He huddles with two police officers and the one person who can make this stop: the victim of the crime that’s being punished.
The huddle breaks, and the executioner retakes his position, left of the condemned. He sets his right leg forward and his left leg back, as if he’s about to stretch his left calf. Sunlight flashes on the blade as he draws it above his head.
This is Saudi Arabia, one of the last places on earth where capital punishment is a public spectacle. Decapitation awaits murderers, but the death penalty also applies to many other crimes, such as armed robbery, rape, adultery, drug use and trafficking, and renouncing Islam. There’s a woman on death row for witchcraft; the charge is based partly on a man’s accusation that her spell made him impotent. Some 1,800 convicts were executed in Saudi Arabia between 1985 and 2008, yet reliable information about the practice is scarce. In Riyadh, beheadings happen at 9 a.m. any given day of the week. There is no advance notice. There is also no written penal code, so questions of illegality depend on the on-the-spot interpretations of police and judges.
What’s certain is that the Koran guides the justice system, with some laws passed regarding areas the holy book does not address. The Saudi interpretation of the Koran discourages all forms of evidence other than confessions and eyewitness accounts in capital trials, on the theory that doing otherwise would leave too much discretion to the judge. But at any time until the sword strikes, a victim’s family can pardon the condemned—usually for a cash settlement of at least 2 million riyals ($530,000 or so) from the convict or a member of the convict’s family.
In rare cases, often politically sensitive ones, King Abdullah grants a pardon, one of the last hopes for Canadian national Mohamed Kohail, 24, who faces beheading after being convicted for the murder of a Syrian youth during a schoolyard brawl in Jeddah. His younger brother Sultan, who reportedly instigated the fight by insulting a Syrian girl, could also face the death penalty, as his case has been transferred to an adult court on appeal. Allegedly, Mohamed was told that if he signed a document stating that he punched the victim, he would be freed. Many who live to recount their experience in the Saudi justice system report that police promised freedom in exchange for a confession—or tortured them to get one.