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The executioner's sword

Despite executing an average of two or three prisoners each week, Saudi Arabia’s grotesque love affa

It was around this time last year that Britain’s red carpet was rolled out for the high-pomp state visit of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s monarch and head of government.

The visit was characterised by the inevitable splendour of these occasions - royals meeting royals, lavish banquets, gold-encrusted carriages, bafflingly complex dining arrangements, and a good deal of controversy. Especially about arms deals and human rights.

Gordon Brown and government ministers kept to tight lines about “shared values” and “fighting terrorism”, but the two-day visit saw a welter of criticism from some backbench politicians, from human rights organisations and from commentators of various stripes.

Amnesty, for one, didn’t “oppose” the visit, but sought to talk about human rights in relation to a country that refuses to even allow Amnesty researchers to go to visit to meet Saudi people face to face.

Others added their voices and King Abdullah and his officials were reportedly “shocked” that they had been so much criticised during their time here.

But should they have been shocked? And were the Saudis actually listening to any of what their critics were saying?

It’s healthy and necessary for world leaders to listen to their critics. Rather than recoiling from these views - were we guilty of some unpardonable lèse majesté breach of etiquette? - Riyadh’s royals really ought to start listening to what people are actually complaining about.

It’s pretty simple. The Saudi authorities display an almost complete disregard for even the most basic human rights. Peaceful critics of the government are often subjected to prolonged detention without charge or trial. There are widespread allegations of the use of horrible torture against detainees. Floggings are imposed by the courts (11 Nigerian men were recently sentenced to 1,000 lashes each). Violence and discrimination against women is common, and migrant workers frequently labour under second-class status and suffer physical abuse from their employers.

Many of these gross abuses are piled one on top of another when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s implementation of capital punishment.

Here’s a typical scenario. A Pakistani migrant worker is accused of a murder or of being a drug dealer. Police arrive, the accused is taken to police cells. They are subjected to relentless questioning, denied sleep or food, kept in solitary confinement and tortured if they refuse to “confess” to their crime.

Fearing for their lives, scared and exhausted, the detainee signs a “confession” in Arabic that they can’t read or understood. They cling to a hope that they can sort out the mess when they can get a lawyer or come to trial.

They never get to sort it out. They’re taken before a court without a lawyer and the judge pronounces them guilty entirely on the basis of their false confession. Even then they may be in the dark. Without even the assistance of an interpreter, they probably won’t know what the outcome actually is. What is the sentence? Is there an appeal? A few months later they go to their deaths with no mercy from the Saudi system and no help from their home country, itself a “death penalty state” and one reliant on remittances from oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

In April 2005, for example, six young Somali men were publicly beheaded one morning after being taken out of their prisons where they had been serving what they thought were five-year sentences (plus flogging) for robbery. In fact, unbeknownst to them or their families, they had also been sentenced to death and the men only discovered the fact they were to be killed on the very morning of their executions.

In the last two years alone, according to Amnesty records (incomplete because Saudi Arabia refrains from publishing capital punishment statistics), at least 253 people have been executed. Of these, at least 127 were foreign nationals from poor and developing countries in Asia and Africa, notably Pakistan. Some 125 of them were poor Saudi Arabians (it’s been impossible to even identify the nationality of the remainder); the richer, better-connected Saudis, meanwhile, tend to barter “blood money” pay-offs to victims’ families and escape execution altogether.

Bucking the international trend toward abolition or reduced usage of the death penalty, and behind only China and Iran in terms of raw numbers, Saudi Arabia is executing more and more prisoners, including many for non-lethal crimes. A Turkish man living in Jeddah, for example, a barber called Sabri Bogday, is facing execution after being convicted (without a lawyer or interpreter) on “apostasy” charges for supposedly insulting Islam. Last November an Egyptian, Mustafa Ibrahim, was executed in Riyadh following what the Saudi Ministry of the Interior described as his conviction for “sorcery” and “witchcraft”.

Despite executing two or three prisoners every single week on average, Saudi Arabia’s grotesque love affair with the executioner’s sword is raising barely a murmur of protest from the international community, including our own government.

As William Sampson, one of the “Saudi Brits” who was himself sentenced to death in Riyadh in 2001 recently told Amnesty, what really appalled him in his own case was the almost “mute observance” of the UK government at what was happening in Saudi Arabia.

And still it goes on. Apparently when it comes to the Saudi royals we are keen to roll out the welcome carpet and blow the ceremonial trumpets of state, but altogether less keen to break the code of silence around Saudi Arabia’s diabolical human rights record.

Read Amnesty International’s new report on executions in Saudi Arabia

Kate Allen is UK director of Amnesty International

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State