Leading Article: Saudi Arabia's way of death must change

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The Independent Online
ACOUNTRY of 15 million people that executes two a week should not escape scrutiny merely because it is a reliable friend, a major oil producer and an important market for western goods. Saudi Arabia has enjoyed relative immunity from western criticism because its friends did not wish to jeopardise commercial relations or support for western interests in the area. Especially during the Cold War, there seemed to be everything to lose and nothing to gain from questioning the lifestyle of a vital ally.

The report released today by Amnesty International is a reminder of how distant the country's values still are from the democracies with which it allies itself. Amnesty focuses on the sharp rise in executions for criminal and sexual offences over the 12 months to mid-May: a total of 105, with another seven since.

The main issue is not the death penalty itself, although Amnesty is against it, but the frequency with which it is applied and, above all, the lack of due process before it is carried out. Under Islamic law, as interpreted by Saudi Arabia, it is mandatory for many offences, including apostasy, certain acts of sabotage, treason or conspiracy, some types of robbery with violence, some sexual offences and most murders. This will seem an excessively long list even to people who support the death penalty in principle, and even to some other Islamic countries. So will the number of executions. For comparison, the United States executed 28 people in 1992.

Outside critics will not get far by challenging the entire religious basis of the Saudi legal system. They can be more effective concentrating on the lack of basic rights accorded to defendants, who have no guaranteed access to lawyers or even to be represented by a lawyer during their trial, and are not assured adequate time to prepare their defence. Many are eventually sentenced solely on the basis of confessions, often extracted under torture.

These practices contravene a host of international human rights standards and should be roundly condemned by western governments.

The Saudi regime would doubtless react with its customary sensitivity to such criticism, particularly now that it is under growing internal pressure from the liberal modernisers on one flank and Islamic fundamentalists on the other. It used to regard western influence as the main internal threat. Now it is increasingly worried by radical clerics who are challenging the legitimacy traditionally conferred on it by the established clergy. Confusingly, some of these clerics are calling for rights for themselves in language very similar to that of the liberals who want genuine democracy. The harsher treatment of criminals may be in part an attempt to placate the fundamentalists, who tend to blame crime on excessive western influence.

In this delicate situation, no realist expects the Saudi regime to lurch so sharply towards democracy that it risks unleashing uncontrollable forces. It should realise, however, that the centre ground will shrink further unless it tries to reduce the range of legitimate grievances felt by critics on both flanks, which include the denial of due process, and starts to open up channels of representation through which conflicts can be mediated before they explode. Constructive outside criticism could further this process. Western governments should overcome their timidity.