Saudi man faces death for ripping up Koran, renouncing Islam

A Saudi court has sentenced a man to death for renouncing his Islamic faith along with other reported acts of blasphemy which included ripping up a Koran and cursing Mohammad.

The Saudi Gazette reported the unnamed man in his 20s posted a video online on the social networking site, Keek, where he ripped up a copy of the Koran, hit it with a shoe and cursed Allah and the Islamic Prophet Mohammad – all considered crimes in the Saudi Kingdom. Under Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi system of Islamic Sharia law, those convicted of crimes of apostasy receive the death penalty, often carried out by public beheading.

One of the United States’ key allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has received a criticism over lack of transparency in its legal proceedings and utilization of beheadings as the main method of execution. Last August, NBC reported that the Kingdom’s rate of executions had increased to one per day and, last month, a top Saudi official protested over comparisons between the county and ISIS. However, Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki, told NBC News that Saudi criminal punishments were legitimate because they are based on "a decision made by a court" as opposed to ISIS' "arbitrary" killings. "

“It’s as brutal an act to have your head chopped by a public executioner as it is by a member of the so called Islamic State,” said Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for Middle East North Africa.

A spokesman for the National Society for Human Rights, a Saudi Arabian human rights organization, said that the beheadings deter crime.

“The general reason behind states making an execution public, by making the execution part of the personal experience, you increase the deterrent effect of the death penalty,” said Delphine Lourtau, Lead Research of the Death Penalty Worldwide project at Cornell University. “The problem with this is that research has conclusively shown that we have not been able to prove that capital punishment has a deterrent effect.”

There are signs that Saudi Arabia has taken steps to reform its judicial system, such as modernizing the way court proceedings are carried out. But international watchdogs claim that only the infrastructure has been reformed and not treatment of those accused.

“How is the Saudi court different from 20 years ago? Its more organized, but also more efficient in punishing, actually now even more brutal in punishing dissent,” said Ali Al-Ahmed of the Institute for Gulf Affairs. “The laws are not carried out fairly in favor of the accused. They have modernized some of the tools, but the law itself has not changed.”

As of 2013, Saudi Arabia ranked third in number of recorded executions behind Iran and Iraq, according to Amnesty International. In 2014, 87 people were executed and, according the AFP Press Agency, 26 people have been executed so far this year, with seven occurring in the first two weeks alone.

“They say they are not accountable for the executions because the Organization of Islamic Cooperation [of which Saudi Arabia is a member] signed the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights which is their interpretation of Sharia law,” said M Zuhdi Jasser, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. “[Saudi Arabia] does not follow the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The country has come under recent fire in the last year over its human rights record. This January, Layla bint Abdul Mutaleb Bassim, a Burmese woman, was accused of raping and murdering her seven-year-old stepdaughter. She was dragged through the streets of Mecca, screaming “I did not kill! I did not kill!” before being publicly beheaded. Causing even further international controversy, last year, a Jeddah court sentenced liberal blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes, a $250,000 fine and 10 years in prison for publishing crimes of blasphemy including insulting Islam.

Since then, the first of 50 lashes have occurred, but subsequent floggings have been postponed. However, some judges in Saudi Arabia’s criminal court want Badawi to undergo a re-trial for apostasy. If convicted, he could face beheading. Just days after the first lashes were given, Badawi’s attorney, Waleed Abu Al-Khair, had a 15-year prison sentence reinstated for which he was charged, among multiple crimes, “antagonizing international organizations against the Kingdom.”

“To me, this is a great metaphor for how absurdly evil their judicial system is,” Jasser said.

Amnesty International, which has always been concerned about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, believes urgent action is needed on behalf of the United States in order to bring international awareness to such sentences.

“For too long, U.S. Presidents have given their Saudi allies a free pass as long as the Saudis preserve their geopolitical alliance with the U.S.,” said Bery. “It’s high time for the U.S. government to stop looking the other way when it comes to human rights violations and make sure major allies like Saudi Arabia do not get a free pass when it comes to treatment of people in their country.”’s Mary Kekatos contributed to this report.