Fearful symmetry: why Saudi Arabia should end cruel punishments

In the past it’s been the gouging out of an eye or the extraction of a tooth. Now it’s the severing of spinal column.

The Saudi justice system’s willingness to countenance extreme and cruel punishments is once again in the news after a judge in Tabuk, in the north-west of the country, has taken seriously the request that a man who allegedly attacked someone with a cleaver causing them to be paralysed should himself have his spinal cord cut into so that he’s also left paralysed. The judge has apparently been checking with the country’s hospitals to see if they’d be willing to carry out the “operation”.

On the one hand this type of cruel punishment is breathtaking. Even some of my colleagues at the Amnesty office were visibly shocked when they heard about it.

But actually, having done numerous radio interviews on the death penalty over the years I know full well that the idea of “symmetry” haunts the debate on crime and punishment.

We’ve all heard it. Those literal interpretations of the eye-for-an-eye injunction (and its equivalent). They’ve have been used to prop up the pro-capital punishment position for years. “He killed someone, why shouldn’t we kill him?”, goes the refrain.

My reply? Well, we don’t advocate torturing torturers and we don’t say that rapists should themselves be raped. Surely that’s because justice is far more complex than this simple-minded notion of getting back at the perpetrator.

A proper justice system needs to be fair, dispassionate and, crucially, about setting standards that are a world away from those of criminals who steal from, maim or kill other people. Why be like them? (Indeed, in a way, worse than them – because  unlike many crimes, the punishment is being carried out in “cold blood”). Replicating the disgusting behaviour of man who allegedly went on the attack with a meat cleaver is exactly the wrong response.

Hopefully a blaze of publicity will help to avert this horrendous Saudi sentence from being carried out (and certainly no medical professional in Saudi Arabia should ever assent to this act of mutilation).

But what of a country that could allow this to be seriously considered in the first place? Various reports suggest that the Saudi ruler King Abdullah is currently trying to clamp down on the “extremist ideology” that underpins some of these punishments. So, two cheers for that at least.

But Saudi Arabia continues to take pride in its “tough” stance on crime, when actually what this means is massive use of the death penalty (often after sham trials), floggings, amputations and other acts of torture masquerading as justice.

On the spinal cord case, William Blake’s famous phrase “fearful symmetry” comes to mind. The judge in question may have thought the punishment would scare people into law-minded behaviour, instead this latest instance of a disturbingly literal-minded idea of symmetrical justice has just brought more ignominy to Saudi Arabia’s already battered human rights reputation.

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