Video of a doomed prisoner being beheaded in a Saudi street leaked online Saturday. The victim, Layla Abdul Mutaleb Bassim, was from Myanmar and had been accused of killing her 6-year-old daughter. She screamed that she was innocent as the executioner prepared to take her head.
Bassim was one of 10 people who have been publicly beheaded in the first two and a half weeks of the year in Saudi Arabia, one of the United States' closest allies in the Middle East.
The background: Saudi Arabia's reigning monarchy has one of the worst human rights records in the world. According to Human Rights Watch, women are banned from traveling, conducting business or even undergoing certain medical procedures without the consent of their husbands. Women are similarly prohibited from driving, playing sports or wearing anything but full-body cloaks in public. Abuse of migrant workers is rampant. The criminal justice system conducts "systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest and torture and ill-treatment in detention." Torture and brutal executions are common, while freedom of speech simply does not exist.
Last year, Saudi Arabia beheaded 90 people. The 10 in the first few weeks of 2015 is another indication that the wave of executions that began in August 2014 is not slowing down. This puts America in the perverse position of railing against the mass beheadings perpetrated by the Islamic State group while quietly tolerating those committed by the House of Saud.
Other recent victims of Saudi rule have included people imprisoned for dubious offenses ranging from criticizing Islam on Twitter to operating online forums. On occasion, the death sentence is used for charges like "sorcery."
The reason: Saudi Arabia enjoys a special relationship with the U.S. under which these gratuitous abuses of human rights essentially don't count. Aside from a few high-profile cases like the brutal lashings recently assigned to blogger Raif Badawi, Human Rights Watch reports that U.S. generally does not criticize the Saudi government except in annual reports.
Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. military ally in the War on Terror, being the beneficiary of over $20 billion in proposed arms sales since 2012. The kingdom's financial power and importance in the global energy sector has made it an irreplaceable regional partner. The U.S. also questionably views Saudi Arabia as a source of regional stability, though the fact that such stability has to be enforced through widespread brutality and autocratic rule is apparently a secondary concern. (Never mind that they aggressively support terrorism.) And yes, it sells the U.S., Europe and Asia a lot of oil and is a powerful member of OPEC, the energy cartel that holds 80% of the world's oil conventional reserves.
"It's possible the executions were used as intimidation and flexing of muscles. It's a very volatile time and executions do serve a purpose when they're done en masse," London School of Economics visiting professor Madawi al-Rasheed told Reuters. "There's uncertainty around Saudi Arabia from the north and from the south and inside they are taking aggressive action alongside the U.S. against Islamic State, and all that is creating some kind of upheaval, which the death penalty tries to keep a lid on."
This fundamentally hypocritical, cynical relationship has little end in sight, meaning that many more terrible stories like Bassim's will emerge from Saudi Arabia, and the U.S will likely continue to turn a blind eye. That's pretty awful, even given America's habit of supporting dictators around the globe.
h/t Daily Beast