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Women beheaded in Saudi execution frenzy

SAUDI ARABIA has embarked on another orgy of head-chopping, decapitating a total of 55 people so far this year - almost double the executions carried out in 1998 - including two women who were beheaded in public for allegedly trafficking in drugs.

Hawa Faruk and Aisha Saada Kassem had their heads cut off with swords - after their scarves were torn from their heads by their executioners - in Riyadh and Jeddah. Both women were Nigerian; Ms Faruk was decapitated on 28 May and Ms Kassem was executed before a large crowd outside a mosque just a week ago.

Needless to say, there have been no words of condemnation in the West, let alone in the United States, whose troops continue to be based in the kingdom and whose oil investments in Saudi Arabia render even the slightest criticism impossible. The women - like the 53 male victims - were tried in semi-secret courts. An unusually large number of beheadings this year were carried out on foreigners: they included 10 Pakistanis for drug offences, five Nigerians (four for alleged drug offences, one for armed robbery), three Indians (two for drug-related crimes, one for rape), two Afghans, two Indonesians and a Syrian.

As usual, the Saudis announced each decapitation with a short paragraph in the government-controlled press. Aisha Kassem's execution - "with a sabre", it was gruesomely announced - took place after she was convicted of "smuggling cocaine hidden in her intestines".

Up to five years ago, executions of women took place in Saudi prisons, sometimes by firing squad, but since 1996, they have been in public, often after Friday prayers and in front of hundreds of men. In 1997, they executed three women - Zahra Issa Ali and Bana Mohamed Adam, both Nigerians accused of drug trafficking, and Soleha Anam Kadiran, an Indonesian convicted of murdering a Saudi woman.

A year earlier, a Saudi woman, Dhafira bint Said bin Mohamed al-Salim, was beheaded for killing her husband, and two Indonesian women were decapitated for alleged drugs trafficking. In 1995, a Saudi mother and daughter were executed together - their scarves again torn from their heads before decapitation.

The worst year for executions in Saudi Arabia was 1995, when 192 condemned, seven of them women, went beneath the sword. There were 96 beheadings in 1996, 122 the following year and 29 in 1998.

The human rights organisation Amnesty International regularly condemns Saudi Arabia for its executions and for the mockery of a trial which most of the victims receive. The hearings, according to Amnesty, do not accord with the basic norms of international law and are often heard in secret. Visitors to Saudi Arabia have said that women convicted of drugs offences are sometimes rape victims who are judicially murdered to prevent them identifying their assailant.

Saudi Arabia regularly justifies these bloody scenes by quoting from Koranic law, by reminding foreigners of Saudi tradition and by insisting upon the integrity and humanity of its courts. In one case last year, a Saudi executioner had raised his sword over a condemned man's head when the father of the boy he was accused of murdering stepped forward to pardon the prisoner. The executioner lowered his sword. But death sentences are rarely commuted - unless, of course, the prisoner happens to be a British nurse.

Death by the blade is something all Saudis know of but few wish to discuss. But yesterday, I spoke to a man who had once flown over the Saudi desert with the old King Abdul Aziz. "The king wanted to show me a village," he said. "I didn't know why but when we got overhead, it was just a deserted place with a few stray dogs.

"And then the king said to me: `The people of this village used to rob the caravans to Mecca and I warned them to stop. They didn't listen to me, so I warned them again. Again, they didn't listen. So I sent my guards to the village and they cut off the heads of every man, woman and child. And they waited for villagers to return from far away. And they cut off their heads too. And there was no more robbery. If you are going to rule, you must use your power and be firm."

If other Muslim nations, however, think they can regard themselves as squeaky clean in the execution stakes, here are a few statistics to suggest otherwise: Iraq has so far this year executed 208 people, Kuwait six, Yemen 17, Iran 69, United Arab Emirates two. Just over four years ago, the Emirates executed an 18-year-old Sri Lankan girl on her birthday. So far this year, the US has executed 59 people by lethal injection and electric chair.