When Beheading Won’t Do the Job, the Saudis Resort to Crucifixion

The stunning human-rights abuses of a U.S. ally

Ricardo Moraes / Reuters
For Saudi Arabia, sometimes it’s not enough to simply behead a person who has run afoul of the government: On some occasions, there’s nothing like crucifixion to make your point:

A group of U.N. experts has joined rights groups in calling on Saudi Arabia to halt the execution of a Shiite man convicted of crimes reportedly committed as a teenager during protests inspired by the Arab Spring.

Ali al-Nimr, the nephew of firebrand Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, faces execution by beheading and an additional rare punishment of “crucifixion,” which means publicly displaying the body after death as a warning to others, according to Saudi state media.

Saudi Arabia, of course, is a world champion of human-rights abuse. Freedom, in all of its manifestations, is absent from the country. For an accounting of Saudi Arabia’s dismal human-rights record, please see Amnesty International’s latest country report. (I would direct you to Human Rights Watch’s work, except that Human Rights Watch has a history of—believe it or not—fundraising in Saudi Arabia. It should not, of course, fundraise in any non-democratic, primary-target country, particularly one in which giving to a human-rights group could land the donor in terrible trouble.)
Naturally, Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record makes it, in the eyes of the United Nations, an expert on the subject: Saudi Arabia sits on the UN Human Rights Council and is even part of the committee that helps choose the council’s human-rights experts. The UN Human Rights Council is already a debased body, whose members include Cuba, Venezuela, China, Pakistan, Qatar, and Vietnam. Providing Saudi Arabia with a leadership role in this group is an affront to morality and good sense.
It also puts the United States in a difficult position, as we saw earlier this week, when Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, was asked about Ali al-Nimr, and about the crucial role Saudi Arabia is meant to play in the advancement of human rights. A transcript of the relevant exchange is posted below. I don’t know Toner, but I feel pity for any U.S. government official who believes that he is forced by the nature of his job to cover up for Saudi Arabia:

QUESTION: Yesterday, Saudi Arabia was named to head the Human Rights Council, and today I think they announced they are about to behead a 21-year-old Shia activist named Muhammed al-Nimr. Are you aware of that?

MR. TONER: I’m not aware of the trial that you—or the verdict—death sentence.

QUESTION: Well, apparently, he was arrested when [he] was 17 years old and kept in juvenile detention, then moved on. And now, he’s been scheduled to be executed.

MR. TONER: Right. I mean, we’ve talked about our concerns about some of the capital punishment cases in Saudi Arabia in our Human Rights Report, but I don’t have any more to add to it.


QUESTION: Well, how about a reaction to them heading the council?

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t have any comment, don’t have any reaction to it. I mean, frankly, it’s—we would welcome it. We’re close allies. If we—

QUESTION: Do you think that they’re an appropriate choice given—I mean, how many pages is—does Saudi Arabia get in the Human Rights Report annually?

MR. TONER: I can’t give that off the top of my head, Matt.

QUESTION: I can’t either, but let’s just say that there’s a lot to write about Saudi Arabia and human rights in that report. I’m just wondering if you [think] that it’s appropriate for them to have a leadership position.

MR. TONER: We have a strong dialogue, obviously a partnership with Saudi Arabia that spans, obviously, many issues. We talk about human-rights concerns with them. As to this leadership role, we hope that it’s an occasion for them to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders.

So, the United State welcomes the leadership of Saudi Arabia on a body meant to expose the human-rights violations of countries like Saudi Arabia. This is straight-up “Alice in Wonderland” policymaking. There are reasons we are allies with Saudi Arabia, of course, but even Barack Obama has made it clear—even before he was president—that these reasons ought to be scrutinized.

By the way, I’m sure that Saudi Arabia will itself benefit from membership on the Human Rights Council. It will no doubt learn new and exciting torture techniques from its fellow members, some of whom might be able, for reasons of public relations, to guide Saudi Arabia away from crucifixion, and toward less outre forms of punishment.