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Saudi executions: beyond the numbers

By Halim Shebaya, openDemocracy
This article was originally published by openDemocracy on January 8, 2016. Copyright, openDemocracy. Reprinted with permission. 

The inability to recognise an affront to the rule of law, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator, reveals the region’s dire state of affairs, politically, morally, and intellectually. Arabic

“Every nation that proclaims the rule of law at home must respect it abroad and every nation that insists on it abroad must enforce it at home.” - Kofi Annan

Demotix/Syed Shahriyar. All rights reserved. On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 47 individuals accused of terrorism, in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) called a “shameful start to 2016.” Among the 47 men was a prominent Shi’a cleric who was convicted, according to both Amnesty International and HRW, for his non-violent opposition to the Saudi regime.

HRW had indicated in 2014 that “Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was convicted on a host of vague charges, based largely on his peaceful criticism of Saudi officials,” while Amnesty International described it as “a political and grossly unfair trial at the Specialised Criminal Court.” In addition, today MiddleEastEye reported that “prisoners arrested when they were children and others suffering from mental illness" were also among those executed.

There are two issues here. First, the opposition to the use of the death penalty as a matter of principle in criminal sentencing, i.e. a blanket opposition to its use in all circumstances, regardless of whether the accused is guilty or innocent, and regardless of the nature and severity of the crime.

Second, even if one supports capital punishment, a key question remains in relation to Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on two levels: (1), whether the offence meets the threshold of the “most serious crimes” as interpreted by the Human Rights Committee in its General Comment No. 6 on the “right to life”. And (2), whether the conditions were met for a “fair hearing by an independent tribunal” and for the respect of the accused’s rights during the investigative and criminal proceedings, according to international norms and standards.

Let us not get lost in an argument about who executes more or fewer individuals every year, as if a lower ranking signals an achievement.

In dealing with the repercussions of the executions, Saudi Arabia and its supporters preferred to focus on the death penalty. It became clear that the pro-Saudi press was either unwilling or unable to condemn the executions. Thus, many observers were quick—and correct—to draw attention to the fact that Iran executes more people on an annual basis, as documented by Amnesty’s annual review of the death penalty worldwide.

Hence, the tu quoque argument was put to good political use. It is usually enough in political polemics to point out the opponent’s double standards or hypocrisy to weather the storm of criticism in relation to controversial affairs or in dealing with ‘bad press’—in this case, the executions and the counter-claim that Iran lacks the moral standing to point the accusing finger at Saudi Arabia.

For Iran and its proponents, the focus was more on the unjust nature of the accusations against Sheikh al-Nimr specifically, rather than an outcry against the execution of 47 individuals. This is partly due to the fact that Iran has no objection to the use of the death penalty in the criminal justice system—but also because al-Nimr is Shi’a. The main issue became that of the unjust killing of a religious figure whose only fault was to call for a greater voice for the disenfranchised Shi’a minority in the Kingdom. Also, his reported principled defence (transcending the Sunni-Shi’a divide) of any victim or oppressed group—including in Syria—was further evidence for some that he was a prisoner and martyr of conscience and not a terrorist.

On both issues—the death penalty and unjust criminal proceedings for political dissidents—the two regional rivals have a dismal record. Suffice it here to point the reader to reports conducted over the years by human rights organisations and United Nations committees and special rapporteurs on various aspects of these two countries’ respect for the rule of law and their adherence to international human rights norms and standards.

This comment does not seek to get into the “who is better or worst” argument—an argument that is conducted on a daily basis by both countries’ officials, as well as by the ‘more of a royalist than the king/ruler’ pundits who present their reasons as to why either Saudi Arabia or Iran is the true backer of moderation and people’s concerns in the region.

Rather, the interest here is in exposing the danger to the culture of the ‘rule of law,’ which is undermined ever more deeply by the recent Saudi executions, as well as by the reactions we have seen from both sides of the conflict.

The ‘rule of law’ is an all-encapsulating term for the values of freedom, democracy, equality and non-discrimination. It is a concept that is part and parcel of all United Nations and development agencies’ work in the Middle East and beyond. It can be defined, as we see in UN documents, reports and resolutions, as follows:

“The rule of law involves adherence to a principle of governance whereby all persons… including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced… and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires…equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law…avoidance of arbitrariness, and procedural and legal transparency.”

In judging a state, regime, or any public policy and ruling, the benchmark should be the extent to which the ‘rule of law’ is upheld and the extent to which our states’ institutions and practices measure up in terms of adhering to the above-mentioned definition, especially in terms of the laws being “consistent with international human rights norms and standards.” This emphasis is important to avoid any confusion between the ‘rule of law’ and ‘national laws,’ which may or may not be consistent with international human rights norms and standards.

It is an unfortunate reminder of our region’s devotional partisanship that we do not have wide condemnation of abuses, wherever they occur, and whoever the perpetrator.

For proponents of a secular Middle East where the rule of law and human rights are respected, the executions should be an issue that goes far beyond the ‘tit for tat’ arguments we have seen thus far in the press. If indeed the purpose of the Arab uprisings was/is to express popular dissatisfaction with autocratic regimes and to call for greater freedoms and participation in public life, the inability to recognise an affront to the rule of law reveals our region’s dire state of affairs, politically, morally, and intellectually.

It is an unfortunate reminder of our region’s devotional partisanship to either Iran or Saudi Arabia that we do not have a wide condemnation of abuses, wherever they occur, and whoever the alleged perpetrator is. Political researcher Ziad Majed piercingly noted in the aftermath of the executions that “we have a public that increasingly only cares about the confessional identity of the killer and the victims whenever it is confronted with killings, repression, and aggression.” I had similarly noted in anearlier piece regarding selective grief and solidarity that people in the Arab region

“could care less about the plight of victims from other sects or from opposing political parties…each side seems to only care about the crimes committed by the opposing parties domestically, and regionally. In Syria, media and individual solidarity is dependent on whether one supports Saudi Arabia or Iran, and in turn Assad or his opponents.”

The ability to maintain a critical eye and the ability to criticise the ruler—even if one has voted for him/her—is a hallmark of democratic societies. The rule of law is the antidote to the culture of partisanship based on tribal, familial, or religious affiliations. It is the ability to call for accountability for a wrongdoing, even if the perpetrator is the head of the state him/herself. That is the point of elections and a free press. A democratic leader is in principle a leader attuned to the needs of his/her electorate precisely because his/her re-election or approval rates depend on his/her performance and not simply on his/her authority.

One commentator had insightfully argued in 2012 that Arab spring nations do not yet grasp freedom of dissent and that “Freedom is not only about majority rule, but ensuring that women, religious minorities and intellectual dissenters are able to flourish without fear.” In other words, freedom is not just about elections. And it is not just about removing a dictator.

Freedom is the ability to speak out, including against the ruler, according to one’s opinions and beliefs, even—and especially—if those opinions and beliefs run counter to the ruling class or majority opinion.

This is a crucial point for our societies. Let us not get lost in an argument about who executes more or fewer individuals every year, as if a lower ranking signals an achievement of sorts for us to take pride in.

Instead, our concern should be whether the vision and struggle for a free pluralist democratic Middle Eastern region, where human rights are respected, is strengthened or undermined by the execution of 47 individuals in one day, and by the execution of a political dissident.

And until we are able to assess such situations without a near-automatic resort to the tu quoque argument, i.e. that the other side also kills individuals, or that the other side kills more individuals every year, we remain completely disconnected from the people’s rightful chants for dignity, life, social justice, freedom, and an end to autocratic political regimes who rule with no regard for human lives and individual freedoms.

Halim Shebaya is an instructor in the School of Arts and Sciences at the Lebanese American University. He has previously worked on social and political affairs for a number of international organisations in Lebanon. Find him on twitter @halimshebaya (views and opinions expressed here are those of the author in his personal capacity).

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