Happy New Year, Saudi-style
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 2nd January, 2016
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long had one of the highest levels of capital punishment implementation in the world, but this year it has really excelled itself by welcoming in the New Year by executing 47 individuals today in various parts of the country. The official reason is that these people were convicted of terrorism; having not been present at the trials I cannot comment on the legitimacy of the verdicts, however there are several important points to make about the sentences. The first, of course, is about the death penalty itself. In the European Union, it is not allowed. Indeed, any country aspiring to join the EU must remove capital punishment from their statute books; Turkey, for example, has done this. But the European objection to the death penalty is global in its concern, not regional, which is why governments such as the UK’s should be taking a public stand. They do it against ISIS/Daesh, correctly, and they should do it against that key Western “ally”, Saudi Arabia. David Cameron please note.
Second, there is the question of the impact of today’s executions, both inside Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East. Notably, one of those executed was a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This will not only inflame passions among Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, concentrated in the Eastern Province, but has already brought howls of outrage from the most significant Shia-majority country in the region, Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran are already fierce rivals in the Middle East (and are supporting opposite sides in the conflict in Yemen) and this latest development will only make things worse. Moreover, it is likely to exacerbate tensions between Sunni and Shia communities across the Gulf and the Middle East. If the government in Riyadh wished to cool passions in the restless Eastern Province they have alas succeeded in doing the opposite.
Finally, there is the question: should this be our business, or something just for Saudis themselves to comment on? I believe the answer should be an unequivocal “yes, it is our business”. Apart from the objection in principle to the death penalty, discussed above, there is the fact that there are particularly strong ties between the Desert Kingdom and Great Britain, both between the governments and between the two royal families. This relationship is something that should be reviewed. Behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure has had no effect. The number of executions (many of them public beheadings) went up last year and after today’s executions (some by beheading, others byfiring squads) 2016 looks like being a record year. It is time for Britain and other Western countries to make it clear that we believe that human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, including the extraordinary number of executions, are not acceptable in the 21st century. The Saudi monarchy seems intent on bringing about its own downfall, and if/when that happens, we should not be seen to have failed to take the side of humanity and justice.