Several international human rights organisations have expressed outrage over the execution of a Saudi woman earlier this month. The western press joined the fray with some editorials condemning the putting to death of Ameenah Bin Salem, tried and convicted of practising witchcraft and sorcery, according to the Saudi Ministry of Interior.
In a statement, Philip Luther, interim director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa chapter, described the execution as "deeply shocking" adding that ‘while we don't know the details of the acts which the authorities accused Ameenah of committing, the charge of sorcery has often been used in Saudi Arabia to punish people, generally after unfair trials, for exercising their right to freedom of speech or religion".
This year alone, there have been reports that close to 80 people have been executed for committing violent crimes. The number of actual executions would be much higher had it not been for the practice of accepting ‘diya' or blood money in lieu of execution, according to Sharia.
It should be noted that Amnesty International regularly targets Saudi Arabia with regard to the execution of some of its criminals and for the "charade of a trial which most of the victims receive". Amnesty claims that more often than not, the accused are not judged in accordance with the basic norms of international law and court sessions are held in secret.
Mentioned in the Old Testament and carried over to the subsequent faiths, the ‘eye for an eye' view can and often does thrust people on opposing sides of the fence. The law of ‘an eye for an eye' is usually called the law of retribution, or lex talionis, or the law of equivalency. In Saudi Arabia as elsewhere, capital punishment is still being meted out to those proven guilty of a variety of crimes.
In that the crimes for capital punishment by the state are clearly defined — terrorism, drug-trafficking, kidnapping, armed robbery and rape — there exist crimes against people that can place the aggressor under the sword of the state or the mercy of the victim's family. The state often has no say in such matters.
Take the case of a homicide. If the perpetrator is proven guilty, the state demands his incarceration for a minimal time, while he awaits his fate based on the demands of the victim's relatives. In the case of a full pardon by the victim's family, he is let off scot-free. This is often the case when there is no indication or cause of pre-meditation for the crime.
Pardon can come in the form of mercy from the victim's relatives, pressure from the extended family or the community, or the payment of ‘diya' or ‘blood money', an amount that can range from hundreds of thousands of riyals to several million.
However, if the victim's family decides that the aggressor committed an unpardonable crime, no law in the land can intervene if the relatives remain unmoved in their wish to see the guilty one executed. And in that case, the sword is used to deliver justice.
Most urban dwellers that I have encountered do not perceive this act of retribution as inhumane if the crime in itself is ghastly in nature. The kidnapping and molestation of a child, or the rape and murder of a defenceless woman, or a greed-motivated pre-meditated murder will not elicit any form of sympathy for the assailant.
Although they may quote verses from the Quran in the form that forgiveness is divine, few would march in defence of and against the execution of a proven criminal for gruesome deeds.
Others may point out to the relative safety from bodily harm prevalent in the kingdom to further their conviction that capital punishment does indeed serve as a deterrent in keeping heinous crime rates low. In that people can for the most part walk freely without fear of being accosted by an armed robber, there is no question in their minds that such executions play a big role.
Where in some countries the innocent have been reportedly put to death after flawed investigation, raising public indignation over the role of such state-sponsored executions, such errors are minimised here through self-admission or witnesses. And testimonies are usually scrutinised in several tiers of the legal system before a final verdict is issued.
Rarely do we hear of someone whose life was ended wrongfully because of flawed testimony, the absence of a high-profile legal team or the perpetrator's social status. The law applies equally to one and all.
Today, as the Gulf rebounds in growth and business ventures, there may be those tempted to make gains through the pain of others. How often they pause to reconsider their intent in view of the existing and terminal laws of justice may be of social interest.
So is capital punishment justified? It depends on which side of the fence your sentiments are on.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.