By P.V. Durga:
The Saudi Arabian government, in the website of its Ministry of Civil Service, recently advertised job openings for executioners – christening their job as that of a “religious functionary”. The law in Saudi Arabia is strictly in adherence to the Sharia law in Quran and has clear punishments for offences ranging from murder to “modern” crimes such as drug trafficking and cyber crimes. The number of executions this year in Saudi Arabia stands at 85 in just a few months, which is already close to last year’s total figure of 88.
The increase in the number of executions has been attributed to the new King Salman, who has taken measures to expedite the judicial processes by employing new judges, thereby compensating for backlogs. While it is commendable that justice is being meted out swiftly, using death as a punishment is severely questionable.
It was said that the punishment systems were in place in order to instil “fear” and inspire obedience of the law. Does beheading a criminal in public actually deal with the crime? Law must seek to ensure that citizens live fearlessly, knowing that their rights will be protected. However, punitive law does the reverse, especially in such countries, where the definition of a crime rests in the hands of conservative judges. While King Salman has inducted a younger crop of officials, he has done nothing yet to revamp the judicial sector which is constituted by “deeply conservative judges” who still “have great power to define crimes and set punishments”.
In a world that it increasingly placing emphasis on radical individualism, Saudi Arabia’s justice system has been receiving criticism for giving precedence to “religious mores” over “individual liberty”, which makes it seem like a clear violation of human rights. Moreover, when law is based solely on religious texts, inconsistencies in judgement across different cases are bound to exist, owing to the fact that these texts have interpretative variations. Further, these inconsistencies could also be attributed to the government’s goal of instilling “fear’”. There have been cases where a theft had satisfied the conditions for amputation, but the criminals were allowed to “confess to a lesser charge”. What about the criminals whose limbs were amputated? In which case has justice actually been delivered?
While there have been times when criminals deserving death according to the law have been pardoned by family members of the victim owing to religious reasons, Saudi Arabia ranks third in the world after China and Iran for sentencing people to death, according Amnesty International data. This stands testimony to the fact that there seems to be no focus on the prospect of reforming a criminal. Retribution through death will be unsuccessful in ensuring order in the long run unless the focus is shifted from punishment to reform. Can an individual’s right to life be dictated by a law that lacks uniformity? The problem with the punitive law in Saudi Arabia is definitely not with the religion it follows. What the country needs is some perspective- about crimes, criminals, and the value of their lives.