In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Saudi Arabia Puts 47 to Death, Including Prominent Shiite Cleric

Public execution in Saudi Arabia (file photo)
Public execution in Saudi Arabia (file photo)
BAGHDAD — Saudi Arabia executed 47 people convicted of terrorism-related offenses on Saturday, including suspected members of Al Qaeda and a prominent cleric and government critic from the country’s Shiite minority.

The executions, which were reported by the Saudi state news media, were the first of 2016 and followed a year in which at least 157 people were put to death, the most in two decades in the conservative Muslim kingdom.

While most of those executed Saturday had been convicted of involvement with Al Qaeda during a wave of attacks about a decade ago, they also included Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shiite cleric and outspoken campaigner for Shiite rights.

Sheikh Nimr, who was arrested in 2012, had harshly criticized the Sunni monarchy of neighboring Bahrain for its violent suppression of protests by its own Shiite population after the start of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. The Saudi government accused him of fueling violent dissent among Saudi Arabia’s Shiites, which he denied.

It was not immediately clear how the executions Saturday were carried out, though most in Saudi Arabia are beheadings carried out in public squares, which Saudi officials say serve to deter crime.

Sheikh Nimr’s execution is likely to further exacerbate tensions between the Saudi government, which is dominated by a Sunni royal family, and Shiites across the region. Iran, a Shiite country and Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, had warned that executing Sheikh Nimr “would cost Saudi Arabia dearly.”

The cleric’s arrest, in July 2012, came as Saudi Arabia led a group of regional monarchies in violently pushing back against the pro-democratic activism and protests that swept the region during the Arab Spring.

The Saudi government’s fears of unrest prompted it to intervene to prop up the monarchy in Bahrain, which faced protests from a Shiite-led pro-democracy movement. In Saudi Arabia, the focal point of protests was in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where many Shiites live and often complain of official discrimination by the Sunni monarchy.

Sheikh Nimr, based in the Eastern Province town of Awamiyah, had long been a fierce critic of the monarchy and played a leading role in the protests. Hundreds of people demonstrated in the province after video emerged of his arrest, which showed him bleeding while in custody. The government said he had been injured in a shootout. Sheikh Nimr faced charges including sedition and was sentenced to death in October 2014.

The executions Saturday came as Saudi Arabia seeks to battle accusations that its justice system, which is based on a strict interpretation of Shariah law, uses methods similar to those of the Islamic State extremist group. Saudi officials bristle at such comparisons, saying that unlike the Islamic State, which has made a trademark of its grisly videos of executions of captives and members of religious minorities, their government puts to death only people who have been convicted in court of grave crimes.

In 2015, a year that began with the inauguration of a new monarch, King Salman, Saudi Arabia executed at least 157 people, up from 90 in 2014. Saudi officials have argued that the sharp increase, which was strongly criticized by human rights groups, reflected not a change in policy but a backlog of death sentences that had built up in the final years of the previous monarch, King Abdullah.

Source: The New York Times, Ben Hubbard, January 2, 2016

At least 4 protesters killed in Saudi mass executions

At least four people convicted of offences related to political protest are among the 47 reportedly executed by Saudi Arabia earlier today (Saturday).

Sheikh Nimr, Ali al-Ribh, Mohammad Shioukh and Mohammad Suweimal were all arrested in 2012 following their involvement in anti-Government protests, and subsequently sentenced to death. Ali was 18 when he was arrested, and sentenced to death for organizing and participating in demonstrations; vandalism; helping to organize demonstrations through the use of his BlackBerry; attending an address of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Mohammad Shioukh, 19 at the time of his arrest, was sentenced to death for a number of offences, including writing anti-Government graffiti and filming demonstrations for the purpose of documenting and publishing their content. Both were tortured while in custody.

Their names were included on a list of executions carried out today by the Saudi Government and published on the website of the Kingdom’s official press agency. In total, 47 people were executed at various locations across the country.

In the statement, the ministry of the interior quoted the Quran, saying that “The recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and do mischief in the land is only that they shall be killed or crucified or their hands and their feet be cut off from opposite sides, or be exiled from the land. That is their disgrace in this world and a great torment is theirs in the Hereafter.”

The list did not include the names of a number of people sentenced to death as children who are still facing execution. Ali al Nimr (Sheikh Nimr’s nephew), Dawoud al Marhoon, and Abdullah al Zaher were also sentenced to death over their alleged involvement in the 2012 anti-Government protests, despite having been aged 17, 17, and 15 respectively at the time. All three were also badly mistreated in custody, and tortured into signing ‘confessions’ to the offences alleged against them.

Commenting, Maya Foa, Director of the death penalty team at international human rights organisation Reprieve said: “2015 saw Saudi Arabia execute over 150 people, many of them for non-violent offences. Today's appalling news, with nearly 50 executed in a single day, suggests 2016 could be even worse. Alarmingly, the Saudi Government is continuing to target those who have called for domestic reform in the kingdom, executing at least four of them today. There are now real concerns that those protesters sentenced to death as children could be next in line to face the swordsman’s blade. Saudi Arabia's allies - including the US and UK - must not turn a blind eye to such atrocities and must urgently appeal to the Kingdom to change course.”

The Saudi Government’s statement on the executions can be found here.

Source: Reprieve, January 2, 2016

Saudi Arabia says 47 executed on terrorism charges, including Shi'ite cleric

Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on Saturday for terrorism it said, an apparent message to both Sunni Muslim jihadists and Shi'ite anti-government protesters that the conservative Islamic kingdom will brook no violent dissent.

The deaths come amid a growing war of words between Saudi Arabia and the militant group Islamic State, which called for attacks in the kingdom. But it may also raise tensions with Iran over the execution of prominent Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Tehran warned last year that executing Nimr would "cost Saudi Arabia dearly".

Most of those executed were convicted of leading or carrying out a series of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia after 2003, but they also included some members of the Shi'ite minority convicted of attacks on police during protests from 2011-13.

In a statement issued on state television and other official media, the Interior Ministry named the 47 dead men and listed crimes that included both involvement in attacks and embracing jihadist ideology.

The simultaneous execution of 47 people on security grounds was the biggest mass execution for such offences in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 jihadist rebels who seized Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979.

Saudi Arabia in 2015 suffered a series of further bombing and shooting attacks by jihadist militants sympathetic to Islamic State group. Those attacks killed dozens, increasing pressure on Riyadh to show it was taking strong action.

"There is a huge popular pressure on the government to punish those people. It included all the leaders of al Qaeda, all the ones responsible for shedding blood. It sends a message," said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst close to the Interior Ministry.

The conservative Islamic kingdom, which usually executes people by public beheading, detained thousands of militant Islamists after a series of al Qaeda attacks from 2003-06 that killed hundreds, and has convicted hundreds of them.

However, it also detained hundreds of members of its Shi'ite minority after protests from 2011-13, during which several policemen were killed in shooting and petrol bomb attacks.

At least three other Shi'ites were executed alongside Nimr, including Ali al-Rubh, whom relatives said was a juvenile at the time of the crime for which he was convicted, Mohammed al-Shayoukh and Mohammed Suwaymil.

Activists in the Shi'ite district of Qatif have warned of possible protests in response to the executions. However, Nimr's brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, said he hoped any response would be peaceful.

The Interior Ministry statement began with Koranic verses justifying the use of execution and state television showed footage of the aftermath of al Qaeda attacks in the last decade. Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh appeared on television soon after to describe the executions as just.

The executions are Saudi Arabia's first in 2016. At least 157 people were put to death last year, a big increase from the 90 people killed in 2014.

Source: Reuters, Angus McDowall, January 2, 2016

Saudi beheadings soared in 2015 under discretionary rulings

Public execution in Saudi Arabia
Public execution in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia carried out at least 157 executions in 2015, with beheadings reaching their highest level in the kingdom in 2 decades, according to several advocacy groups that monitor the death penalty worldwide.

Coinciding with the rise in executions is the number of people executed for non-lethal offenses that judges have wide discretion to rule on, particularly for drug-related crimes.

Rights group Amnesty International said in November that at least 63 people had been executed since the start of the year for drug-related offenses. That figure made for at least 40 % of the total number of executions in 2015, compared to less than 4 % for drug-related executions in 2010. Amnesty said Saudi Arabia had exceeded its highest level of executions since 1995, when 192 executions were recorded.

But while most crimes, such as premeditated murder, may carry fixed punishments under Saudi Arabia's interpretation of the Islamic law, or Shariah, drug-related offenses are considered "ta'zir", meaning neither the crime nor the punishment is defined in Islam.

Discretionary judgments for "ta'zir" crimes have led to arbitrary rulings with contentious outcomes.

In a lengthy report issued in August, Amnesty International noted the case of Lafi al-Shammari, a Saudi national with no previous criminal record who was executed in mid-2015 for drug trafficking. The person arrested with him and charged with the same offenses received a 10-year prison sentence, despite having prior arrests related to drug trafficking.

Human Rights Watch found that of the first 100 prisoners executed in 2015, 56 had been based on judicial discretion and not for crimes for which Islamic law mandates a specific death penalty punishment.

Shariah scholars hold vastly different views on the application of the death penalty, particularly for cases of "ta'zir."

Delphine Lourtau, research director at Cornell Law School's Death Penalty Worldwide, adds that there are Shariah law experts "whose views are that procedural safeguards surrounding capital punishment are so stringent that they make death penalty almost virtually impossible."

She says in Saudi Arabia, defendants are not provided defense lawyers and in numerous cases of South Asians arrested for drug trafficking, they are not provided translators in court hearings. She said there are also questions "over the degree of influence the executive has on trial outcomes" when it comes to cases where Shiite activists are sentenced to death.

Emory Law professor and Shariah scholar Abdullahi An-Naim said because there is an "inherent infallibility in court systems," no judicial system can claim to enforce an immutable, infallible form of Shariah.

"There is a gap between what Islam is and what Islam is as understood by human beings," he said. "Shariah was never intended to be coercively applied by the state."

Similar to how the U.S. Constitution is seen as a living document with interpretations that have expanded over the years, more so is the Quran, which serves as a cornerstone of Shariah, he said. The other half to Shariah is the judgments carried out by the Prophet Muhammad. Virtually anything else becomes an interpretation of Shariah and not Shariah itself, An-Naim said.

Of Islam's four major schools of thought, the underpinning of Saudi Arabia's legal system is based on the most conservative Hanbali branch and an ideology widely known as Wahhabism.

A 2005 royal decree issued in Saudi Arabia to combat narcotics further codified the right of judges to issue execution sentences "as a discretionary penalty" against any person found guilty of smuggling, receiving, or manufacturing drugs.

HRW's Middle East researcher Adam Coolge says Saudi Arabia executed 158 people in total in 2015 compared to 90 the year before.

Catherine Higham, a caseworker for Reprieve, which works against the death penalty worldwide, says her organization documented 157 executions in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia does not release annual tallies, though it does announce individual executions in state media throughout the year.

Saudi law allows for execution in cases of murder, drug offenses and rape. Though seldom carried out, the death penalty also applies to adultery, apostasy and witchcraft.

In defense of how Saudi Arabia applies Shariah, the kingdom's representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Bandar al-Aiban, said in an address in Geneva in March that capital punishment applies "only (to) those who commit heinous crimes that threaten security."

Because Saudi Arabia carries out most executions through beheading and sometimes in public, it has been compared to the extremist Islamic State group, which also carries out public beheadings and claims to be implementing Shariah.

Saudi Arabia strongly rejects this. In December, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Paris "it's easy to say Wahhabism equals Daesh equals terrorism, which is not true." Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the IS group.

Unlike the extrajudicial beheadings IS carries out against hostages and others, the kingdom says its judiciary process requires at least 13 judges at three levels of court to rule in favor of a death sentence before it is carried out. Saudi officials also argue executions are aimed at combating crime.

Even with the kingdom's record level of executions in 2015, Amnesty International says China, where information about the death penalty is a "state secret," is believed to execute more individuals that the rest of the world's figures combined.

Reprieve says that in Iran, more than 1,000 people were executed in 2015. Another organization called Iran Human Rights, which is based in Oslo, Norway, and closely follows executions, said at least 648 people had been executed in the first 6 months of 2015 in the Islamic Republic, with more than 2/3 for drug offenses.

Reprieve says Pakistan has executed at least 315 people in 2015, after the country lifted a moratorium on executions early last year following a December 2014 Taliban attack on a school that killed 150 people, most of them children. Only a fraction of those executed since then have been people convicted of a terrorist attack.

Source: Associated Press, January 1, 2016

Nimr al-Nimr execution: Iranian cleric says death penalty will bring down the Saudi Arabia's ruling family

Saudis carry a poster demanding freedom for jailed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr
Saudis carry a poster demanding freedom
for jailed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami's comments came as Iran's foreign minister warned Saudi Arabia would pay a 'high price' for the execution

One of Iran's most senior clerics has predicted the fall of Saudi Arabia's ruling family following the kingdom's execution of Shi'ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr.

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami's comments came as Iran's foreign minister warned Saudi Arabia would pay a 'high price' for following policies that led to the execution of al-Nimr and 46 others for 'terrorism offences'.

Ayatollah Khatami who branded the House of Saud 'treacherous', told the Mehr news agency: "I have no doubt that this pure blood will stain the collar of the House of Saud and wipe them from the pages of history.

"The crime of executing Sheikh Nimr is part of a criminal pattern by this treacherous family... the Islamic world is expected to cry out and denounce this infamous regime as much as it can."

His comments follow a warning last year from Iran that the execution of al-Nimr would "cost Saudi Arabia dearly", while the sentiment was echoed by a spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry, Hossein Jaber Ansari, following al-Nimr's death.

He told the official IRNA news agency: "The Saudi government supports terrorist movements and extremists, but confronts domestic critics with oppression and execution... the Saudi government will pay a high price for following these policies."

The 2012 arrest of al-Nimr, who supported anti-government protests in the country's Eastern Province in 2011, prompted civil unrest, which some fear could be repeated in the aftermath of the weekend's mass execution.

Al-Nimr had long been a critic of the Saudi government, jailed on a number of occasions previously for his involvement in protests, and was found guilty by the country's Specialised Criminal Court in 2014 of crimes including calling for the collapse of the state and failing to pledge allegiance to the government.

Source: The Independent, January 2, 2016

The death sentences hanging over 6 young men should worry supporters of our alliance with the kingdom

Ali Mohammed al-Nimr
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr
With British officialdom so reluctant to say anything that might ruffle this gruesome regime's feathers, it is up to the rest of us to make our dismay about the case of these 6 young men heard

The dreadful fate awaiting 6 young Saudis - condemned to death in 2011 for terrorism and whose sentences were confirmed in October - should disturb and indeed shame all those who continue to defend our close alliance to this despotic country. A letter that we publish today from the mothers of the 6 youths, and from the mother of a prominent cleric who has also been sentenced to death, notes that the new year marked the point at which their children had spent almost 4 years behind bars.

They have also been held in solitary confinement for 90 days now, following confirmation of the verdicts, and "could be beheaded at any moment", the mothers write, thanking campaigners in the outside world for the interest they have taken in the case, which they say could yet "help save our children from death".

We hope the mother's optimism is well founded and that clemency prevails, although if it does, it will hardly be because of anything that our own Government has done. This is, after all, the same government that grovellingly ordered the Union Flag to be flown at half-mast last year following the death of the late King Abdullah.

Fans of the British connection with Saudi Arabia will be quick to point out that the 6 men were sentenced to death for terrorism, which might suggest that the government in Riyadh has done us all a favour by putting terrorists out of harm's way. Closer examination of the case, however, which a number of human rights groups have undertaken, suggests the 6 could not have been less like the Paris bombers and that their only real crime was to protest against the Sunni monarchy's highly discriminatory policy against the country's Shia minority, to which they belong.

Were this Iran, or some other less favoured country, the Foreign Office might well have something to say about the matter but, this being Saudi Arabia, the great rock on which British foreign policy in the Middle East has long rested, the result has been virtual silence. Using less than robust language, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, last October confined himself to saying that he did "not expect" one of the youngest of those accused, Ali al-Nimr, to be executed.

Prime minister David Cameron receives the King Abdullah Decoration One from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Jeddah, November 6, 2012.
Britain's David Cameron receives the King Abdullah Decoration One
from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Jeddah, November 6, 2012.
That month, the Ministry of Justice did drop its contract to train prison staff in Saudi Arabia but that decision was hardly taken voluntarily and was initially opposed by the Prime Minister, David Cameron - and a sudden change of heart on the ministry's part followed a sustained campaign which, to his credit, the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, lent backing.

It is worth remembering that 3 of the 6 activists were handed the death penalty for crimes committed while they were children, and that they have also since said that they were tortured into making confessions.

It would be one thing if the case of these 6 men was an isolated one - the fruit of complex local or religious feuds that we cannot understand and should not interfere with, but this is far from the case.The justice system of our principal ally in the Middle East is if anything getting worse rather than better, with the authorities making ample use of a proclaimed "war on terrorism" to deal with their enemies as they think fit. More than 150 people were executed in 2015, a sharp rise on the 88 executed in 2014.

With British officialdom so reluctant to say anything that might ruffle this gruesome regime's feathers, it is up to the rest of us to make our dismay about the case of these 6 young men heard.

Source: Editorial, The Independent, January 2, 2015

Saudi Execution of Shiite Leader Stokes Tensions

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia's execution Saturday of 47 prisoners, including an influential Shiite cleric, has prompted a wave of condemnation from Shiite leaders around the region and threatens to further damage Sunni-Shiite relations across the Middle East. Hundreds of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr's supporters protested his execution in his hometown in eastern Saudi Arabia, in neighboring Bahrain and as far away as northern India.

Here's a look at the aftermath and regional implications of al-Nimr's execution.

Al-Nimr, who was in his 50s, was a widely revered Shiite Muslim cleric from eastern Saudi Arabia who was convicted in Oct. 2014 of sedition and other charges and sentenced to death. He was an outspoken government critic and a key leader of Shiite protests in eastern Saudi Arabia in 2011. He was also a critic of the government of Bahrain, where a Sunni-led monarchy suppressed protests by Shiites who make up the majority of the tiny island nation. Saudi Arabia sent troops to help Bahrain crush the uprising, concerned it would spread and destabilize other Arab Gulf countries.

Al-Nimr, however, also spoke out against the Iranian-backed government in Syria for killing protesters there.

He directly criticized the Al Saud ruling family for its domestic policies and forcefully spoke out against King Salman's elder brother, the late Crown Prince and former Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdulaziz. Al-Nimr did not deny the political charges against him, but maintained he never carried weapons or called for violence.

His death is seen by some as a warning to anyone thinking of calling for reforms and wider political freedoms in Saudi Arabia. His death also strikes a sensitive chord for Saudi Shiites who claim they are discriminated against by authorities in the kingdom, where many ultraconservatives Sunnis view Shiites as heretics.

Several Shiites mosques and places of worship were targeted by Sunni extremists in 2015 in eastern Saudi Arabia, despite attempts by security forces to clamp down on Islamic State group supporters who have also targeted police.

Al-Nimr's execution came as a surprise to even his own family, his brother Mohammed al-Nimr told The Associated Press. Despite harsh verdicts against government critics, activists are typically given long jail sentences even after initial appeals that uphold death sentences.

His death is expected to further exacerbate the proxy wars for regional supremacy being fought across the region by Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two rival nations currently back opposing sides in civil wars in both Syria and Yemen.

Iran's Shiite clerics have used al-Nimr's death to lash out at Saudi Arabia, which is founded upon an ultraconservative Sunni ideology known as Wahhabism.

Iran's Foreign Ministry warned that the Saudi monarchy would pay a heavy price and the speaker of the Iranian parliament said Saudi Arabia would face a "maelstrom" from which it would not escape.

Iran and Saudi have been vying for leadership in the Muslim world since Iran's 1979 revolution, which elevated to power hard-line Shiite clerics. The U.S. war in Iraq further enflamed religious and ethnic tensions by leading to a Shiite-led government in Baghdad and a crucial shift in the sectarian balance of power in the region.

After Arab Spring protests erupted in 2011, Saudi Arabia and Iran entered into a fierce proxy war in Syria, where they are supporting opposite sides of the conflict, and in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been bombing Iranian-allied rebels since March. They also support opposing political groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain.

Source: The Associated Press (via The New York Times), January 2, 2016

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