Thursday, October 13, 2011

Eight Beheadings on Justice Square

JALAL ALAMGIR

IT'S FRIDAY, the holy day of the week. The Kingdom's law enforcers gather up eight Bangladeshi migrant workers from their prison cells and bring them to Justice Square in the capital, Riyadh.

Blindfolded, they are led to the center of the square, and made to kneel down. A small crowd forms in anticipation. At 9 am, a robed man walks up and slowly raises a sword, four feet long and shining. Ambulances wait, stretchers ready.

The sword sweeps down.

The sleek expanse of Justice Square is patterned with beautiful granite. There is no stage, no unnecessary equipment, no fanfare. Underneath runs an efficient drainage system, with a receptacle the size of a pizza box at the center.

Regardless, the head often rolls in unexpected directions. It's collected and laid alongside the body before being taken away on stretchers. Some of the blood spilled on the granite drains quickly, and the rest is hosed down. Those spraying the water are themselves migrant workers.

This is justice, square and fair in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most backward regimes in the world. Here, hands are chopped, bodies are decapitated. Torture is common in extracting confessions. The accused have little protection.

And racism is stark: Arabs get away with a lot more than dark-skinned migrant laborers do.

The Kingdom, in general, is used to getting away with its practices. Besides oil wealth, two special relationships allow it such liberties.

First, by virtue of Mecca, it extracts loyalty from Muslims worldwide, from whom it demands adherence to a dangerously conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

Alongside, it cultivates close ties with the world's superpower. It exports oil, imports defense equipment, gives out lucrative contracts, and finances the US national debt.

The eight Bangladeshis who were beheaded publicly on October 7th were guilty of armed robbery at a warehouse and assault on its Egyptian guard, who later died. Once their confessions were recorded, the legal outcome was a foregone conclusion. After all, this is a kingdom where, as Human Rights Watch put it, "neither criminal nor personal status law is codified, and judges...rely on vague, thousand-year-old interpretations of un-codified Islamic law."

Appeals for clemency from many, including the President of Bangladesh, could not save the workers from execution. Their fate was sealed.

It was sealed first by that thousand-year-old medieval idea of justice: eye for an eye, a philosophy popular also in America, the only industrialized democracy that still exercises the death penalty. Bangladesh itself allows capital punishment, so the president's arguments could not be rested on moral grounds any different.

Their fate was also sealed by their social status. Migrant workers are the lowest rung in the Saudi caste system. They do the least desirable and most hazardous jobs; they have virtually no rights; they are abused verbally, physically, and sexually; their benefits policies are dismal --they are essentially modern-day slaves.

Their fate was sealed also by the Saudi practice to keep workers terrorized under a constant state of pressure. The Kingdom browbeats poorer governments if they advocate better treatment of their émigrés. Disputes between migrant workers and Arab bosses can result in wholesale persecution of a community.

Two years ago Saudi Arabia, annoyed with the conduct of some unruly overworked laborers, meted out collective punishment by stopping the intake of Bangladeshi workers. It took a lengthy series of pleas, assurances and sweet-talk from the Bangladeshi government to get the Saudis to withdraw the ban.

The Kingdom, buttressed by its special relationships, does not waste any opportunity to show who the boss is. A public execution is just such an opportunity. The beheading of the eight was a shameful shock-and-awe tactic, a warning to the millions of other workers to remain submissive, however back-breaking their life may be. The message is clear: obey, and keep your head.

First published in Huffington Post, October 11, 2011


Jalal Alamgir is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston