When It Comes to Beheadings, ISIS Has Nothing Over Saudi Arabia

Saudi police ready a square for public floggings in the Saudi city of Khobar September 28, 2009. Zaki Ghawass/Reuters

The escalation of the war against the Islamic State was triggered by widespread revulsion at the gruesome beheading of two American journalists, relayed on YouTube. Since then, two British aid workers have met a similar grisly fate. And another American has been named as next in line by his terrorist captors.

Yet, for all the outrage these executions have engendered the world over, decapitations are routine in Saudi Arabia, America's closest Arab ally, for crimes including political dissent—and the international press hardly seems to notice. In fact, since January, 59 people have had their heads lopped off in the kingdom, where "punishment by the sword" has been practiced for centuries.

The Saudi legal system is based on Islam's Sharia law. Some countries that use Sharia possess a penal code, but Saudi Arabia does not, although some activists have been calling for reform.

So, what's it like to be beheaded there?

Your last morning on Earth would likely be spent in isolation. You would rise early and eat a last breakfast. If you are lucky, you might receive a sedative, like Valium, to calm your nerves.

Executions usually take place in the morning, before the oppressive heat of the desert kingdom takes hold, in a public square. Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea and Somalia are the only countries in the world that still execute people in public.

People will gather to watch you die. According to British author John R. Bradley, public beheadings are the "only form of public entertainment" in Saudi Arabia, aside from football matches.

If you are a prisoner in Riyadh, the capital, you might be taken to the ocher-colored Deera Square, which has acquired a macabre sobriquet: Chop Chop Square. Before you arrive, police and security forces will have prepared the area. It may have been cordoned off to keep curious spectators at a distance, but they will congregate nonetheless.

You will be led to the center of the square, on the bare earth. According to one of Saudi Arabia's state executioners, Mohammed Saad al-Beshi, who was interviewed in the Saudi newspaper Arab News in June 2003, your energy is likely to fade at this point, from sheer exhaustion and fear. You will not fight for your life, nor protest against your restraints.

A flogging night in Saudi Arabia, July 21, 1997. Fred Peer/Camera Press/Redux

"When [death row prisoners] get to the execution square, their strength drains away," said al-Beshi, who has beheaded up to seven prisoners a day and describes his calling as "God's work." He also said he does not see his work as particularly gruesome.

Sometimes he visits the families before he cuts off their loved ones' heads, to obtain forgiveness. Not for himself but for the man or woman about to be killed. "I always have that hope, until the very last minute, and I pray to God to give the criminal a new lease of life. I always keep that hope alive," he told the newspaper.

He wouldn't reveal how much he gets paid for lopping off heads, but he did acknowledge that the sword (he actually prefers a knife, which he sharpens himself) is a gift from the Saudi government and costs around $4,000.

Al-Beshi started his trade in Jeddah in 1988, but many of the beheaders come from a long line of executioners, an occupation passed from generation to generation, like a cherished heirloom. In Saudi Arabia, at least, the executioner isn't limited to separating bodies from heads. He also cuts off other body parts—hands, legs—depending on the crime.

At the square, you will be forced to your knees. Plastic bags are spread out over the surrounding area to catch the blood that will spill when your head is sliced off, with a single blow of the sword if you are lucky. When al-Beshi cuts off a hand, he says he cuts at a joint. "If it is a leg, the authorities specify where it is to be taken off, so I follow that."

In recent times, there has been a shortage of executioners in the kingdom, which last year led briefly to talk of ending decapitations. According to an official statement last year from a committee made up of members of the ministries of interior, justice and health, "[Abolition of beheading] seems practical, especially in light of shortages in official swordsmen or their belated arrival to execution yards in some incidents." Presumably, the matter is still being explored.

The executioner—always a man—is not allowed to talk to his victim. He reads your charge and some verses from the Quran. You are blindfolded, which is extremely important, and not for humanitarian reasons. If, when the sword is coming down, you turn in fearful anticipation, things could get messy. The blade might not sever with a single chop, or the executioner could miss his mark. The blood won't be neatly caught by the plastic bags, and the head might not be so easy to scoop up.

You will be dressed in something that leaves the soft skin of your neck exposed. Your hands are bound together behind your back. It's better for all concerned to stay still, as is clear from a video of the execution of Rizana Nafeek, a 24-year-old Sri Lankan maid who was accused of murdering her employee's 4-month-old son. She swayed from side to side, making her execution sloppier than most. (Nafeek pleaded not guilty, saying the baby choked on his milk bottle. She was beheaded anyway, in January 2013.)

Some excited noises might come from the crowd. "They are used to seeing it," says Sevag Kechichian of Amnesty International. Executions are not officially announced, but word usually spreads fast anyway. Sometimes family members of the victim will get a call from someone at the Ministry of Interior telling them not to talk to activists, human rights researchers or journalists. That person might also threaten or intimidate relatives of the accused.

Back at the square, guards take their places, jeeps backed up into position. "Then I read the execution order, and at a signal I cut the prisoner's head off," al-Beshi explained.

For the most part, death comes fast. Usually the cut and amputation are surprisingly clean, if the head is kept straight when the fatal blow comes down. But sometimes it takes more than one try. The head, upon detachment, appears to pop off the body, as with a doll that has been squeezed too hard. It rolls to the front or side of the body, which twitches in spasms as the heart continues to beat for a while. The executioner then steps back. Someone moves forward and scoops up the head. Someone else retrieves the body as a jeep backs up to haul it away.

But even in death, you are not liberated. Your murder is meant to be a sign to the people in the crowd that Saudi Arabia does not tolerate dissent. A loudspeaker announces your crime. Your body may be taken away to be buried immediately. But if you were accused of banditry or drug smuggling, like seven Yemenis who were beheaded last year, your corpse will also be crucified.

There are different methods of crucifying the headless. Hoisting a decapitated body up on a crane is one way, but more likely a pole will be used. And while the headless corpse is mounted, your head is placed in a plastic bag similar to the ones put on the ground to catch the blood. Your head is then raised above your body and appears to be floating and detached. Your corpse might be kept in that position for up to four days, as a grotesque warning to others of what might happen if they stray outside the law.

This depiction of a beheading in Saudi Arabia has details taken from numerous videos I watched, which were provided by a human rights group. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have strongly condemned the practice and recently issued statements highlighting the spike in beheadings in the kingdom in recent months.

Following the holy month of Ramadan—which runs from June to July—31 people were beheaded between August 4 and September 22, when the last victim was beheaded, for "sorcery." That is an average of nearly one every other day.But the past few weeks have been quiet, which may be because of the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. This religious duty for Muslim males, which is required at least once in a lifetime and goes on for weeks, recently ended, and some think that's why the parade of beheadings slowed down.

Amnesty International's Kechichian says that statistics from past years suggest the Saudi government has a quota system for beheadings. Judging by how many decapitations have taken place this year—a figure that has not yet reached last year's total or 2012's—he believes the pace of beheadings will soon pick up again.

In 2013, there was a surge in beheadings, from the beginning of the year until June/July. Then almost none. This seems to indicate that someone in the Saudi administration is obliged to maintain a certain level of deaths by beheading. They stopped at 79 beheadings in 2013, the same number from the previous year

"We can only guess," says Kechichian. "This year started slow. As soon as Ramadan was over, it surged. Executions started to occur at a rate of one a day for over a month. My guess is they will now try to catch up after Eid al-Adha [the Feast of the Sacrifice that follows the completion of the hajj] to reach the annual average they would want to keep."

It's a mystery why the U.S. and the European Union, which strongly support the regime in Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil wealth and strategic and military importance, do not publicly condemn the country for its grisly, medieval public executions. In September, Secretary of State John F. Kerry was in Saudi Arabia, meeting with Arab diplomats when setting up the coalition again the Islamic State, commonly called ISIS. Human rights violations were not mentioned.

But there is a clear double standard. Iran, for example—Saudi Arabia's geopolitical rival in the Middle East—is often cited by politicians such as Senator John McCain for gross human rights violations. But Iran, part of what President George W. Bush called "an axis of evil," has, in fact, a far more democratic political process than Saudi Arabia.

So why the blind eye when it comes to Saudi Arabia? ISIS beheadings are repugnant, but the Saudis' beheadings are ignored. "There seems to be a disconnect between Saudi Arabia's condemnation of the practices of the Islamic State and the kingdom's own state-sanctioned practices," says Lina Khatib of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

"Riyadh issues statements against violence of the Islamic State while sentencing prisoners to death, which indicates that the condemnation is not about the violence itself but about its lack of legitimacy," she says. "Violence by the state is permissible, while violence by non-state actors is not."

Who are the beheaded? Most of the crimes leading to beheading appear to be nonlethal: adultery, "sorcery," "drug receiving"—which was the case for four cousins beheaded last August. "It's a crime that, if you are wrong, there is no way to redress the victim," says Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch, of these executions. "It's final."

Saudi Arabia's lack of a penal code means that sentencing is usually discretionary, leaving it up to the judge, Coogle says. This year, 20 out of the 59 people who were beheaded were accused of drug smuggling. One activist, who asked to remain anonymous, says that usually those convicted are not the "big drug dealers but some poor guy that is caught with hash. The authorities are concerned with what is going on in the southern provinces [of Saudi Arabia, close to Yemen, where the locals are less loyal to the Jeddah regime], cracking down harder on drug smugglers."

The victims are overwhelmingly from Saudi Arabia, or from the rest of the Middle East, and a significant number of heroin smugglers come from Pakistan.

One of the other crime categories that leads to beheading—besides banditry, murder, drugs or pedophilia—is simple political dissent. But for activists protesting against the government or calling for reforms, such as the Shiite protesters who rose up in 2011-12, the agonizing wait between their sentencing and being beheaded might take months or even years.

One of those awaiting execution is the Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was arrested in July 2012. The court convicted him of inciting violence in his speeches and supporting unrest in the eastern province of Qatif, where many of the kingdom's minority sects live. He is awaiting a final ruling, which was expected in September but has not yet been delivered. (Nimr al-Nimr's nephew, who was under 18, was also sentenced to death by sword but is currently awaiting a retrial.)

Saudi Arabia is an important ally in the fight against ISIS. So public execution, while not condemned by America and Europe, will likely remain unchecked. "If the USA and other Western governments want their concerns about human rights in the region, including the atrocities committed by ISIS, to be taken seriously," says Kechichian, "they must apply the same standards to their closest allies."