Chop Chop Square

Where capital punishment is a public spectacle

| September-October, 2009

  • Saudi Arabia Capital Punishment

    image by Matt Rota /

  • Saudi Arabia Capital Punishment

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.

In Riyadh, beheadings take place in a downtown public square equipped with a drain the size of a pizza box in its center. Expatriates call it Chop Chop Square. I showed up at 9 a.m. most days for several weeks. After arriving at the barren granite expanse for yet another morning, I’d drink tea with merchants in the bazaar next door. Popular opinion seems to allow more respect for the executioners than sympathy for those who are wrongfully convicted, and rumors about the mysterious swordsmen abound.

Richard Berger
9/25/2009 10:28:40 AM

When I first started reading your comment, I thought, "same old shit", but your quick development to your point was frankly refreshing to me. Fantastic original idea.

Fred Channell
9/10/2009 2:06:50 PM

First, let me say that I am unequivocally opposed to the death penalty. That being said; I feel that we should do Capital Punishment in the USA in exactly the same manner. How do these two opposing viewpoints coexist? Simple. If the general public was slapped in the face with basic ugliness of CP; we would give up on it more quickly. While I appreciate the intent of those folks who push to have CP more "humane" and "painless"; all it really does it make an atrocity more palatable. It needs to come out of the comforting darkness and be exposed to the light of day for what it is, barbarism. When we sanitize it we prolong it.

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