Saudi Arabia Abolishes Public Flogging – An Appeasement at Best
Saudi Arabia announced it abolished flogging as a form of punishment. The country’s supreme court said on Saturday that the “human rights advances” are part of reforms pushed by King Salman and his son, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
The Saudi supreme court said the latest reform was intended to “bring the kingdom into line with international human rights norms against corporal punishment.” Previously the courts could order the flogging of convicts found guilty of offenses ranging from extramarital sex and breach of the peace to murder. While this is definitely a step in the right direction, it is for the time being an appeasement to harness support from the West.
The kingdom’s human rights record came under the spotlight this week after Amnesty International has warned against allowing Saudi Arabian investment fund take over Newcastle United. MBS has been accused of using sport as a distraction from his country’s human rights abuses. The very fact that the Saudis still imprison political dissenters, to say nothing of the kingdom’s chilling track record of using the death penalty as a weapon to crush political dissent and punish anti-government protesters, including children, they still have quite a bit more to do before they can claim to be a country that both respects and promotes natural rights.
This past Friday the prominent Saudi rights activist and a co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association Abdullah al-Hamid, 69, died in custody in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. He was imprisoned several times for calling for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia. The Right Livelihood Foundation, which awards the prize known as the Alternative Nobel, said on Friday al-Hamid, who was serving an eleven-year prison sentence, was taken to hospital after suffering from ill-health in a Riyadh prison earlier this year.
The life of al-Hamid, known in the Islamic world to those Muslims and non-Muslims alike who are still fighting for their inalienable human rights, is just one story among many untold of those who have been and continue to be punished by MBS.
According to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Arab human rights organizations, the Saudi regime has jailed hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful activists, bloggers, lawyers, judges, journalists and religious scholars since the Arab Spring of 2011. If someone criticizes the Royal family or any of its policies in the press or on Twitter, for example, it is considered a criminal act and can land that person in jail. Establishing a political party, signing a petition calling for political reform, writing or even reading something deemed subversive: all are criminal acts.
As custodian of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina, the ruling Royal family of Saud has cunningly used its unique position within Islam to leverage strategic influence, obeisance and power over the global Islamic community. Their foreign policy has been governed almost exclusively by the goal of protecting a wealthy but small and vulnerable state from regional dangers. The Saudis, in addition to funding the self-proclaimed voice for Islam, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is also a permanent observer to the United Nations that has structured Islam into an effective proselytizing global entity, they have also created the Muslim World League, an NGO with the aim of forming preachers and imams according to the teachings of Wahhabism.
Wahhabism, named after Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792), is classified as the most fundamental, the most militant and most fanatical version of Islam. One of the main beliefs promoted by al-Wahhab was the takfir doctrine, act of declaring ones fellow muslim to be a non-believer. It is a legal categorization for which the sentence is traditionally death, which must be handed down by an Islamic Court. Wahhabism essentially provides the theological groundwork for almost every violent jihadist group. It is the catalyst to replace our democratic institutions with fundamental Islamic ones, in addition to being and is the main driving force behind the radicalization of young Muslims in the world today.
In October 2017 MBS stated: “We are returning to what we were before—a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.… We will end extremism very soon.” The prince’s plan is built upon Vision 2030, an economic project to harness natural resources, outside of oil, “intended to confirm the kingdom’s status as ‘the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the investment power house, and the hub connecting three continents.’” It is supposed to build infrastructure and create business opportunities for Saudi citizens. Yet MBS has yet to have provided a transparent outline to achieve this. According to skeptics, Vision 2030 seems to be an austerity project that will continue the same pacts made by the royal family with the same constituencies (the rest of the royal family, religious clerics, business elites, tribal leaders, and different social groups) instead of one-on-one deals with its citizens.
Vision 2030, also, does not mention human rights, nor does it outline any kind of meaningful political reform. While the government has recently introduced limited changes, including lifting the driving ban for women—congratulations ladies—male guardianship system, the main impediment to the realization of women’s rights, remains largely intact. Not to mention, MBS has arrested the women rights activists who campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system.
While MBS has put a temporary halt to the present five-year-campaign in Yemen, it does not undo the fact that, with U.S. support from both Obama and Trump administrations, they have deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure—homes, farms, factories, schools, buses, gas stations, government buildings, water treatment facilities and anything else imaginable. Saudi airstrikes, aside putting 14 million people, which is approximately half the population, on the brink of imminent famine, the poison of rockets and bombs have also caused many infants in their mothers’ wombs to die before birth, or to be born blind, disabled or ill with diseases. These acts constitute genocide within the meaning of 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Crime of Genocide, incidentally making the U.S. a complicit partner.
While many of Saudi Arabia’s allies have applauded the kingdom’s decision to prohibit flogging, Aliaa Abutayah, a London-based Saudi political activist and an opposition leader, said the latest change by the Saudi government in its penal code is a “very small change.”
“If the Saudi government,” she stated, “is serious about legal reform, they should start by releasing all of the political and human rights prisoners they have been holding in their prisons for years. The government should also abolish the death penalty, including the practice of executing juveniles.”
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University.
* Sources no cited may be found in my book Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.