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Thee Unforgiven

Notes on the Executioner's Song in Saudi Arabia

By Adrian L. Jenkins, special to Fog City Journal

June 3, 2007

Softly, softly - the killer is coming. Hush now. It is almost time for a man, perhaps a woman - to die. A life must be taken, a very extravagant mortal price must be exacted - for this is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, among the forefront of the world's statistical leaders in public executions.

Here at the center of the world, here at the end of the world, here where for the tried, convicted and condemned, the fiery ethers of all the stars with their flawed portents will soon enough go out light after light - here in Saudi Arabia there is, alas, no such thing as a kiss before dying.

Criticized by a patently damning series of reports published by Amnesty International since March 2000, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of capital punishment in the world. Here, mercy is not an evergreen thing. Here, those who are government-appointed executioners are in a sense sainted killers, and here the purported will - and vengeance - of God, of Allah, is carried out principally on Fridays, just after the noon hour of prayer by a mere man - no angel, no demon, no god or monster, indeed no saint - just a man; a simple but stoically brutal and almost elegantly impassive man who expertly, effortlessly, wields a brutally extraordinary blade as if heaven's favored and ordained hunter of the condemned. A very ordinary man charged with no ordinary labor. A man who will capably hush himself into not being shocked that by his hand the world suddenly becomes less one life. And then another. Another. Another… Softly, softly, the saint of killers is coming.

It will all be over soon enough, the rudest and most sugarless of all possible mortal surprises. The starless and Bible black night ends, a stratospheric Moor heaving out the stardust airs of its final sigh. The moon, a suddenly repentant Helen of Troy, rolls itself back into the heartbroken palm of the jealous lunar god who briefly gave it up for gone.

Certain birds, muezzins of the bright new day, call out their charivari of birdsong canons at the shock and rise of a truly old sun and then…and then. And then: Before a parliament of the hottest, coldest eyes, a wholly unsuspecting pilgrim comes blinking out into the daylight, out into the center of the world, out into the end of the world, and an executioner's blade falls in a geometry of no remorse, of no regret.

The pilgrim dies strangely - softly, softly - in a very strange land. And then, too, another…another…alas, perhaps even another. It really all depends upon the number of those who have been unwittingly damned to die that day.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is filled with star people, a populous and eclectic contingent of migrant workers - Muslims, Hindus, Christians, skilled as well as unskilled - who have made the pilgrimage there largely from the elsewheres of India, Pakistan, Africa and the Philippines. An eclectic continuum of stargazers and shoe gazers, wallflowers and shrinking violets, each of them has come generically shouldering the same humbled, mortal hopes that have ever driven mankind dreamily towards the gorgeous far and away perils of goldmines, oceans and moonshots.

From the broken down mud brick palaces and dirt road sham wonderlands of India's myriad begging bowl princes, from the stillborn cityscapes of heartbreakingly rural Bangladesh, from the slipshod apartments that are the novas of the fractured constellation that comprises Manila's metropolis, from the impossibly impoverished villages of the Niger Delta - they have come, and they have continued to come, their homelands, families and angels all willfully shed in the hazarded hope of emancipating themselves from the mires of hopelessness, from the choking liana of abject despair.

A contingent of authorized and undocumented migrant workers estimated to be in the millions populates the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia - the largest of the GCC states - and the United Arab Emirates. Of an estimated ten million foreigners - documented or otherwise - living and working in the GCC states, some 5.5 million work in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, essentially one-third of the population. These are the children of hope, a heartbreaking progeny that has willfully, and not at all randomly, rendered itself motherless, or rather motherland-less.

Since the inception of the kingdom's imperium-defining oil industry in the 1930's, a relatively steady sea change of non-indigenous, astonishingly hopeful opportunists has ebbed and flowed into the region under the pretext of joining its expatriate labor force. A sentient surge of dry and brittle autumn frost leaves seeking out the same sun under a very different sky, and in turn a different heaven, ideally one better and more charitable than that which they walked under, back in the constellations of their far and away homelands.

For a significant contingent of South Asian and Southeast Asian workers it was, in particular, the glass Trojan horse of the oil price boom in 1973 that first served as the inaugural clarion call to seek out and find work in Saudi Arabia, a formerly pastoral, agricultural and commercial society that became an implausibly wealthy and rapidly urbanizing one, quite literally overnight.

As that the indigenous Saudi population failed to stream towards the economy-enhancing, large-scale infrastructure projects - principally architectural and road- or highway-based (in addition to a particularly high demand for women in the domestic sector) - that were being aggressively initiated during this prolific period, to keep up with this sudden rush through centuries a number of employers throughout the kingdom began to recruit dichotomously skilled and unskilled laborers from abroad.

For an eclectic display of foreign nationals, individuals who faced achingly bleak socioeconomic prospects within the precincts of the mud-brick ghettoes and dirt road Neverlands of their mother countries, the far and away employment opportunities that Saudi Arabia's increasingly privatized economy offered, were positively irresistible siren songs, chances to get the ear of their preferred god and, in turn, extract their own nervously handmade and exponentially faulty miracles, blessings and reversed curses.

Despite a relatively significant decrease in the 1980's of the profusion of developmental projects that originally incited such a phenomenal influx of finitely queued, extravagantly hopeful pilgrims, this incessant parade of beautiful dreamers had managed to thrive and continue yet and still unabated. The most significant decrease in the flow of migrant workers into the kingdom occurred most significantly in 2001 and 2003, principally due to countries such as Indonesia being subject to a temporary bar on placements in the Middle East, as well as stricter requirements for the dispatching of migrant workers, the spread of the SARS epidemic in the Asia and Pacific region, and the outbreak of war in the Middle East.

More current estimates average that among the principal regions that have sustained the most substantive queues of opportunistic migrants with little or no notable cessation - namely Bangladesh, India and Pakistan - a range of 1 to 1.5 million countrymen comprise an expatriate subset within each nationality, effectively an aggregate of 3 to almost 11 million.

Compounded with this volatile and officially suspect tally are an estimated 900,000 pilgrims each from Sudan, Egypt and the Philippines. This is of course discounting the scores of undocumented expat laborers who, with equally starrily mottled retinae, have wandered as thieves of hope unto genuine and earthly kingdom come.

There is, as a result, a mathematically astonishing Chinese blessing-curse that has come out of these literally infinite queues of impossibly impoverished Alices towards Wonderland. In a recent study, conducted by the Saudi Ministry of Labor, one-third of the Saudi population - registered migrant workers to be specific - accounts for two-thirds of the kingdom's total workforce as calculated across a broad spectrum of skill levels and occupations. All the more damnable is the fact that in the private sector - principally in areas such as housekeeping and commercialized domestics overall - expatriate labor accounts for an estimated 95% of the actively employed.

In an attempt to stem the glaring disparities in the demographics of their workforce, the Saudi government in 1995 initiated an aggressive campaign to enhance the proportion of Saudi nationals represented as active participants in the public and private work sectors. Among the measures initiated since that time have been an increment in the fees required by hopeful migrants to secure certain classes of the requisite work visas which permit them to work in the kingdom, a manifest limiting of certain occupations to Saudis exclusively, and an adjustment of the minimum wages associated with certain job categories so as to effectively increase the cost of non-Saudi labor to employers.

With a defining goal to increase the Saudi national percentage of the kingdom's workforce by 5% each year, irrespective of a relatively active crackdown on the region's contingent of illegal workers, and the employers who hire or harbor them, these initiatives have fallen short of their goal year after year. Although the comparatively rarefied stratospheres of the kingdom's decidedly more white collar employment sectors - mainly the upper echelons of the oil, airline and banking industries - are comprised or workforces which are 70 to 100 percent Saudi, there still results a bleakly Shakespearean rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief variety of drama that is, once the curtain has fallen, an absolutely astonishing passion play that has been performed again and again, one brutal encore heaped blatantly upon another and hardly come from heaven.

Essentially it is a necessary peril, in certain regards, for a great number of dreamy and gently dazzled pilgrims from Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries to venture with fluttering, hopeful hummingbird hearts unto the kingdom, pilgrims utterly deranged with the beautiful hopes of moving through the rest of their lives undetected by the ugly socioeconomic fates that have assailed them in their motherlands.

In a 2002 assessment, the GCC's secretariat for economic affairs found that migrants employed in its member states remitted $27 billion to their home countries. Of that total of remittance payments 60% - or the equivalent of $16 billion - originated from Saudi Arabia. Comparatively the wages that Saudi Arabia-based migrant workers route back to their homelands places Saudi Arabia second only to the United States as the source of the largest amount of remittance payments in the word.

These are the days of the lives of the children of a lesser socioeconomic god. For an achingly flawed system of imported labor that is rife with blatant injustices and unfettered abuses that have imparted - for some - a nightmarish, torrential wash of cancerous heartache - a quantum agony that has spanned with the gravest of geometries across whole cultures, whole continents, whole worlds - perhaps the direst fate that can befall the most hopeful, or ultimately hopeless, of expatriates is: Execution.

Saudi Arabia's human rights record has remained notoriously poor in a number of areas. Here there are saints of killers. Here there are no-good-thieves who are granted footholds unto the kingdom of heaven. Here there are no stays of execution, save for in the static and superfluous ethers of the dreams of those who are about to die.

With no knowledge of Saudi Arabia's laws, with a scarcely nominal comprehension of Arabic, with sometimes exuberantly aggressive law enforcement agencies such as the Mutawaa'in - the kingdom's religious police who represent the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice - operating essentially unchecked with the full acquiescence of the Saudi government, migrant workers who run afoul of the law in Saudi Arabia, legitimately or illegitimately, are exceptionally vulnerable to the dubiously secretive nuances and duplicitous tributaries that comprise the Saudi criminal justice system.

While it would be patently inaccurate to characterize the experiences of all of Saudi Arabia's migrant workers as a damnable vale of tears, for many men and women who venture to the kingdom in search of economic opportunity at every relevant level, from the most menial to the highest skilled positions of employment, time and again the rainbow is bitterly broken against the impassive mountain of extreme forms of labor exploitation that culminate in borderline slavery-like conditions (the Saudi monarchy, none too tangentially, abolished slavery by royal decree in 1962).

Additionally the lives of these forlorn pilgrims, the forsaken personified, are further complicated by an oftentimes flagrant exposure to the persistent agonies of deeply rooted racial, gender and religious discrimination. It is by dint of these and other notable demons that many migrant workers are circumstantially subjected to extravagantly prejudicial forms of public policies and government regulations, and particularly unfair legal proceedings that yield undisclosed death sentences.

On Fridays, just after the muezzins as if a sonorous parliament of otherworldly blackbirds have called for the hour of prayer, for those who are unwittingly about to die the literal end draws near. An eye for an eye shall not suffice in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, nor shall even a life for a life necessarily. Here a death sentence can be decreed and carried out for even the most nominal of crimes, particularly if the accused are foreign nationals.

Although the margin of error in the actual reported figures fluctuates nominally, estimates by a genuine plethora of various international human rights agencies and watchdog organizations (e.g. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l'Homme [International Federation of Human Rights], Asian Human Rights Commission; etc.) have reported alarmingly similar statistics: An averaged 38 individuals were publicly executed in Saudi Arabia in 2006, and with the public execution of four Sri Lankan workers in February of 2007 the reported year-to-date toll for 2007 rose to 17. Of the 2006 statistics, an estimated two-thirds of those executed were foreign nationals who had been employed in the kingdom. In both instances a standard deviation must be factored in to consider the potentially substantive percentage of undocumented executions.

Softly…softly…the killer is coming…. For many foreign nationals past and present who have been imprisoned by the seemingly nebulous Saudi religious courts-based criminal justice system, interminably long or exponentially brief prison sentences can result in undisclosed condemnations to death by public execution - most typically beheading - that those who are about to die are not even made aware of until the exact moment of government-mandated death is at hand. Consider the case of Sharmila Sangeeth Kumara, one of the four Sri Lankans executed for robbery in February of this year. The coda to Kumara's story is prototypical of the globally controversial fate that has befallen a number of other foreign nationals who have died under the implausibly navigable auspices of the Saudi legal system.

Originally convicted and sentenced for a string of armed robberies to a prison term of 15 years in Riyadh's Al-Ha'ir Prison back in October 2004, Kumara was the only one of the four accused - which included fellow countrymen Sanath Pushpakumara, E. J. Victor Corea and Ranjith De Silva - who was not given a death sentence by the Islamic courts before which they were summarily tried.

In a statement issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) after the death sentences of Pushpakumara, Corea and De Silva were upheld in March 2005 subsequent to a an unsuccessful appeal for clemency, it is notable that Kumara's name was not mentioned at all.

The AHRC omitted Kumara's name from their issued statement based upon their fairly reasonable interpretation that Kumara, the lone exception in escaping the death penalty, was yet and still being subjected only to his upheld 15 year prison sentence and not the threat of imminent public execution. By all accounts, particularly those of the Saudi court, pursuant to their unsuccessful appeals three of the convicted Sri Lankans were condemned to death and the fourth - Kumara - was to serve out his non-commuted prison sentence.

According to Saudi Arabia's chief judge, Salih al-Luhaidan, it is a contravention of the tenets of Islam to issue written verdicts to those who are condemned to death or, by extension, to inform the condemned of the time of their execution. Therefore, for those who are captive within the walls of the kingdom's network of prisons and detention centres, all of which typically forbid visits by independent organizations (e.g. Amnesty International), the agonizingly vague fate that potentially awaits them - or does not - is a torment unlike none other.

In stark contrast to this interpretation the Basic Law, adopted by royal decree in 1992, sets forth provisions under which the human rights and security of Saudi citizens and foreign residents alike are protected. The provisional rights which are set forth by the Basic Law are, in turn, supplemented by a spate of additional rights that Saudi Arabia has vowed to uphold as a state party to international human rights treaties, inclusive among them the Slavery Convention; the Convention in the Rights of the Child; the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD); and the Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The provisions of each of these treaties have been indoctrinated as components of the kingdom's domestic law and can, in effect, be invoked before the formal Islamic law shari'a courts, in addition to other judicial and administrative bodies.

The merits and ostensible benefits of these provisional treaties were conclusively absent from the arrests, court proceedings and, ultimately, execution of the four Sri Lankans. In early February Human Rights Watch was able to secure a telephone interview with Ranjith De Silva while he was still being held in al-Ha'ir prison. At the time De Silva was still hopeful that he could obtain clemency, although in reality he was to be executed - wholly unbeknownst to him - within one week from the time of his interview.

According to De Silva he was beaten severely on his back by his arresting officers; furthermore he cited that never at any point during his arrest, interrogation, trial and subsequent imprisonment, was he ever informed that he had a right to legal counsel, or the right to not incriminate himself. Furthermore, De Silva claimed in his interview with Human Rights Watch that although he had confessed to his part in the robberies, he was not informed by the Saudi authorities that he might potentially face the death penalty for his offences.

The sun, he believed at that time, would possibly yet and still be as a thing he could call out the name of and bear witness to the living daylights of its rise.

A criminal hearing before a judge finally took place for all four men, De Silva recounted, about nine months after their initial interrogation and arrest. According to de Silva, none of the men were granted advance notice that this hearing was to take place. Lasting an estimated three hours, while the four men had the benefit of a translator who provided interpretation, and a scribe who functioned as the court's official reporter, no prosecutor was present and the defendants did not have the benefit of either legal counsel or the intervention and assistance of the Sri Lankan consulate.

Several months after the first hearing occurred, a second took place, purportedly again without any of the four men receiving any prior notice. In this second instance, De Silva recalled, they were brought before two judges who conferred in camera for 20 minutes and then sentenced him, Corea and Pushkpakumara to death for their part in the robberies.

The sun, as with the gods of each man, became as men who were not of their word, as men who were less than honorable.

International law dictates that individuals sentenced to death must have a meaningful right to appeal their verdicts, but seemingly none of the most basic safeguards were provided to the four Sri Lankans who were executed earlier this year. To state that migrant workers and other foreign nationals have faced discriminatory treatment under Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system is indeed a proverbial - and heartbreakingly literal - understatement. In a study conducted by Amnesty International, of the 766 Saudi Arabia-based executions recorded between 1990 and 1999, over half were migrant workers and other foreign nationals. Exacerbating matters is the fact that Saudi Arabia has expanded the scope of the death penalty to cover an alarmingly generous range of offenses - notably non-violent ones without particularly lethal consequences - such as apostasy, drug dealing, sodomy and "witchcraft".

Execution is by public beheading for men and, according to some accounts, firing squad - or beheading as well - for women. In an alarming number of instances the families of the condemned are rarely - if ever - provided with any formal notification by Saudi officials that the execution of their loved ones have taken place, let alone the opportunity to see their beloveds prior to their surreptitiously orchestrated demise. No kiss, verily, before dying.

Equally alarming is the fact that in a number of instances the governments of foreign nationals executed in the kingdom are not always informed. Although the four Sri Lankans executed in February succeeded in contacting their embassy from al-Ha'ir prison after the initial phases of their trial and sentencing, their consular advisors informed them that it was too late for a lawyer to be appointed to them. Reportedly a lone official from the Sri Lankan consulate attended the civil hearing of the four men. There have been instances, however, where the governments of some executed migrant workers have far more vociferously, openly and actively protested the brazen miscarriages of justice and subsequent grave fates that have befallen their native sons and daughters.

After seven Nigerians were beheaded in May 2000 after being convicted of armed robbery [in which the injuries of some victims were reported], and another Nigerian national was beheaded later that same month - in addition to a number of Nigerians involved in the same armed robbery who had their right hands and left feet amputated (per Koranic interpretation) - the Nigerian government yet again expressed formal concerns as to the drastic fates to which their citizens were being subjected.

The Nigerian government has expressed these very same concerns on a number of occasions. In March 2000 Nigeria's then President Olusegun Obasanjo formally appealed to the Saudi Arabian authorities to advise Nigerians making the pilgrimage to Mecca to be cognizant of the extreme judicial punishments imposed in the region. Subsequent to the public executions and amputations that took place in May 2000, Nigeria's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Duben Oniya, commented to the news media that the Nigerian government would not "sit back and watch Nigerians being maltreated, killed or maimed in any part of the world". Oniya's malcontent, however, although conjoined with the voices of myriad other countries and human rights organizations seem to have fallen harshly upon a starless void of startlingly deaf ears.

Adnan al-Wazzan, a member of Saudi Arabia's Islamic Affairs, Judiciary and Human Rights Committee of the Saudi Shura Council, addressed the subject of armed robbery in his voluminous landmark work Human Rights in Islam. According to al-Wazzan the punishment, in Islam, should be equitable with the crime itself; those who kill should be killed, those whose who commit robbery or theft should have their hands or legs amputated, and that those who do not spill blood or take possessions should be imprisoned in order for them to repent. The governing Saudi Arabian majority, however, considers armed robbery to be a blatant and unforgivable offense against God with very specific, unalterable, and essentially fatal punishment should the crime in question be proven.

This unwavering stance is based upon the Saudi judicial interpretation of the Koranic verse 5:33 that essentially criminalizes the waging of war against God and His Messenger and the spreading of corruption on earth and prescribes, in effect, either "execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land" as a punishment.

As ever, the twain of the wills of men and their ever silent gods are coerced unto an accord that is more inclined to the tastes, the moods, the wills of men who walk the earth as opposed to deities who stride heavens and their attendant novas.

An official statement by the Saudi Ministry of Interior, dated February 19 2007 - the same day as the execution of the four Sri Lankans - stated that a royal order affirmed the verdict of execution for armed robbery and the subsequent public display of their bodies, all in compliance with Saudi law.

Softly, softly, the killer has come. And the hope of every gilded star has gone out light after light. And for those who have given up the ghost there has been no chronicle of their deaths foretold, no kisses before dying.

Amen, and Amin, for all of them.




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