The Morning They Beheaded The Drug Smugglers: It Wasn’t Pretty, Believe Me

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 9:50 A. M., Tuesday, August 31, 1999. “They will kill four today,” one Saudi in the crowd said.

 “No, fifteen,” said another.

“You’re all wrong,” said one of the dozens of soldiers deployed around the parking lot of the city’s central mosque where the executions take place. “They will kill eight. They killed eight last Tuesday, and two more on Friday. And today is Tuesday, and they will kill eight again.” The method of execution is decreed in the Qu’ ran: beheading by sword. Saudi Arabia is the only nation that regularly beheads offenders.

The flag of Saudi Arabia

National symbol of Saudi Arabia. Notice a theme?

I’m the only Westerner in the crowd. I'd arrived early with my Saudi military friend, Tariq, and I got a choice spot in the front row overlooking the platform where eight people would soon die. “We need these executions,” Tariq insists. “Without them we would have even more crime and more of a drug problem. God willing, we will never have a drug problem like America and Europe.” Their crime rate is lower than in the West, but they do have a drug problem, although it admittedly isn’t as severe as ours.

Saudi Arabia performs beheadings for murder, rape, armed robbery, drug smuggling, and other offenses that “threaten the public order,” such as armed robbery. When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia, their newspapers reported the beheading of two Saudis who raped a 12-year-old shepherd girl. I sent the article to my favorite pub in Maryland. I heard that waitresses and customers alike said they wished we meted out the same punishment to child rapists in America.

Another article told of a gang of Nigerians who stole a car and robbed a bank. The sentence for the gunmen: off with their heads. The getaway driver got off easier: he had a right hand and left foot severed before the stumps were plunged into hot oil to cauterize the wound. I missed that execution and “surgical procedure.”

Some death sentences are commuted. A victim can forgive the perpetrator, who will be set free. If a father is murdered, the family, to include the eldest son, may forgive the murderer, something for which Allah bestows a special blessing. The Qu’ ran allows for the payment of blood money to the victim in exchange for forgiveness.  A few years ago, two British nurses were convicted of killing an Australian colleague and sentenced to death. British companies doing business in Saudi Arabia convinced the eldest brother to accept blood money of some $1 million, and the nurses went free.

If a father is killed, his eldest son must be eighteen years of age for the decision on life or death to be legal. If the son is under eighteen, the killer must wait in jail until the son turns eighteen and decides. The killer may have to spend up to eighteen years in a prison cell waiting to learn whether he will live or die.

When only the government is involved, such as with drug smuggling, there is no forgiveness or blood money. For convicted drug smugglers, death is certain and will occur as soon as the execution can be scheduled, generally within months after the offense.

10:00: The crowd swells as more spectators arrive, most of them dressed in thobes, the white robes worn by every Saudi male, and ghutras, their red-checked headdress. Others in the crowd are workers from Pakistan, India, and Africa, and they wear robes typical of those they wear back home. Few in the crowd wear Western clothes. On a small hill on the other side of the parking lot stand two Saudi women in black abayas, their faces covered by black veils. They will observe the executions through thin slits in their veils. Their husbands stand nearby; few Saudi women can venture out alone without their husbands or an adult male member of the family. To my right, at the end of the parking lot, sits a covered VIP area, where witnesses in military uniforms and thobes sit and chat among themselves.

10:10: Three white vans arrive and park at one end of the parking lot. Three Saudis in immaculate thobes and three Bangladeshi laborers in dirty shirts and sarongs emerge. "Those are the funeral vans,” Tariq whispers. They will take away the bodies for burial. The Bangladeshi laborers will do the dirty work.

10:15: Security is tight. Soldiers are everywhere, and more appear. Some take up positions around the platform, supervised by a tough-looking Saudi with a pistol belt around his waist. A Saudi cowboy in a thobe, I think.  Six Special Forces soldiers arrive and deploy around the parking lot. They are dressed in camouflage T-shirts and khaki pants bloused smartly above highly polished boots. Each one cradles an automatic weapon. Along with the scores of soldiers whose main job is crowd control, they will fight off any attempt by friends and relatives to rescue the condemned prisoners. A rescue attempt is possible but unlikely: Most drug smugglers come from poor African and South Asian counties such as Pakistan, and their families are too poor to hire a local James Bond to pull off a rescue.

Most smugglers combine a once-in-a-lifetime chance at lucrative employment in Saudi Arabia with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to earn a bonus equal to a year’s pay, sometimes more. For those who are caught, there will be no more chances for anything else in their lifetime.

The methods that the smugglers use are well known to Saudi authorities. Some smuggle drugs hidden in jars of food, hollowed-out Qur’ans, canes, and false-bottomed suitcases.  Some who bring their families along shove the drugs into their children’s body cavities. A few even brazenly (or stupidly) carry the packages of drugs in their hand-carry luggage, usually the only luggage they carry because few can afford more then a couple of changes of clothes.

Most smugglers are recruited by leaders of their local drug cartels. The drugs are sealed in condoms or the cut-off fingers of surgical gloves. The packets are coated in oil, and the smuggler is taught how to swallow them. Timing is important. The smugglers swallow the drugs just before going to the airport and hope their digestive system allows them enough time to get past Saudi customs officials before the drugs are expelled from the body. Unfortunately for the smugglers, the Saudi officials at the airport are expert at spotting smugglers. They take those they suspect to a hospital for x-rays and to a special holding area where the prisoners are closely watched.

There is always a trial, but smugglers caught with drugs that had just passed through their body have little defense. Someone caught with a package in his luggage might claim that someone sneaked it there as a joke or for revenge. Someone caught with drugs in a hollowed-out Qur’an or cane might claim that someone had given him a present that he never knew contained drugs. But when someone swallows the drugs, they obviously do so because they know it is a crime to take drugs into the country, so there is no defense. The penalty is always death by beheading, a penalty so severe that one would think it would discourage anyone from smuggling in drugs. And it surely does deter thousands from risking their life for a big prize. But hundreds still try, and many are caught every year. And all of them die a violent death.

10:25: The executioners arrive in a white Mercedes and park near the site of the execution. There are two executioners, the soldier says, so each will kill four prisoners. They wait in the coolness of their air-conditioned car, sheltered from the intense sun and heat of the Saudi Arabian summer. I am less accustomed to the sun and heat and wonder whether I will collapse before the executions even begin.

The executioners are respected members of the community, Tariq says, because they carry out the punishment decreed in the Qu’ ran. Some train their sons to take over the position. They are said to receive 500 riyals per prisoner. That’s $133 per head, Tariq jokes. I smile politely but cannot bring myself to laugh.

10:30: We hear a siren, and the crowd surges forward expectantly. The prisoners must be coming, Tariq says. Instead, an ambulance pulls into the lot and parks at one end. The ambulance will treat anyone who is injured in the press of the crowd or faints from the heat or excitement.

10:35: More sirens, and four windowless police vans arrive, escorted by police cars. The condemned prisoners have arrived, the soldier says. The vans back up to the platform, three on one side, one on another.

The doors of one van open, and soldiers step out with small prayer rugs, which they place around the platform. I count eight, so the soldier is right, there will be eight executed today. Two huge Saudis—the executioners—emerge from the white Mercedes and are handed the long, curved swords they will use for the executions. They appear to be calm, just as one would expect experienced professionals to appear when they have a routine job to do. You could even believe they’re carpenters awaiting the arrival of a truckload of wood so they can start building. They could be fishermen awaiting the arrival of their captain so they can set out to sea to catch fish. Instead, they’re executioners awaiting the arrival of the prisoners so they can kill them.

The rear door of another van opens, and an old Pakistani man appears first, escorted by two soldiers. He is dressed in the disheveled street clothes that most laborers here wear. His hands are tied behind his back. A blindfold like an oversized white sleep mask covers his eyes. He appears to be about sixty years old. Did he smuggle drugs to provide a better future for his grandchildren, or is he simply a criminal motivated by greed? There is no way to know, and the motivation by now is irrelevant. The soldiers guide him to the opposite corner of the platform and ease him into a keeling position on one of the rugs. A soldier places a hand on his back and pushes him forward until his body is bent over and his head sticks straight out.  The soldiers loop a rope around both his arms from behind and cinch it tight, which pulls his shoulders back and thrusts his head even farther forward.  A soldier pulls his clothes back to expose his neck.

While he is being prepared, soldiers lead five more men from the vans to the rugs, where they are also knelt down and tied. The men are passive and do as they are directed. Do they do so because they have been conditioned by a lifetime at the powerless bottom of the economic ladder back home? Were they conditioned during their weeks under the strict control of guards in a Saudi prison? Or, as some claim, have they been humanely injected with a tranquilizer that eases the terror of what is about to happen to them? The latter is often given as an explanation of why there is seldom any resistance. And without any resistance, there is no need for the soldiers to get rough. They even seem gentle in the way they handle the prisoners. They are swift and efficient and have obviously done this many times before.

The last prisoner from the van is a tall, delicate young man in his early twenties. He looks as though he could have been in the arts or an artistic profession, perhaps an interior decorator. Did he hang out with an artsy crowd back home where drug use at parties was almost mandatory? Did he smuggle in the drugs for his own use because he had become addicted and was unable to face a two-year job assignment without his fix? Or was he also simply a criminal willing to risk his life for a few riyals? We can never know.

The soldiers have difficulty getting him to kneel. He doesn’t struggle, but his knees won’t bend until the soldiers force him down. They position him as they had the others, but as soon as they leave, he raises his head. If he had received a tranquilizer, I wonder whether the doctor should have given him an extra dose to compensate for his tall frame. Or maybe the tranquilizer story is just that, a story without basis.

Six men are in place scattered around the platform. Two empty rugs remain next to the last van. The doors to the van open, and a sea of black robes emerges. The crowd murmurs in surprise as four women emerge. You’re lucky today, the soldier says. We seldom see two women executed at once. Two of the women are hefty prison guards in black abayas and veils. The other two are prisoners, also in abayas. Both prisoners are small, and one is young, in her early twenties. The other appears to be in her forties, the age of some of the men. Their hair is tied up from their necks with white cloths. I wonder why they didn’t just cut their hair rather than tie it away from the neck. From behind, the young one reminds me of my oldest daughter, and my legs suddenly feel weak.

The female guards ease the women into a kneeling position, bend their bodies forward, and pull back the clothing from their necks, but not as far back as was done for the men. This is Saudi Arabia, and the modesty of women must be preserved in public as much as possible, even during an execution. The two female guards withdraw to the van. A soldier steps forward and cinches back the prisoners’ arms with rope as had been done with the men.

As the last prisoners are prepared, their names and nationalities, and the charges against them, are read in Arabic over a public-address system that reaches every corner of the crowd. Seven of the eight condemned prisoners are from Pakistan, one is from Afghanistan, Tariq says. All had swallowed drugs and attempted to smuggle them into the country in their bodies. There is no doubt of their guilt. The only doubt is whether the punishment fits the crime.

The executions begin. I miss the first one at the other side of the platform because I’m watching the young artist. I hear the thump of the sword and hear some in the crowd yell “Alāhu akbar,” God is great. I look over in time to see the head roll onto the platform. Blood spurts from the severed neck like water from a garden hose. The executioner jumps back to avoid getting blood splashed onto his thobe. My first fleeting thought is of the chickens my father used to kill. The difference is that the chickens continued to function and run around the yard; the beheaded prisoners slump to the ground and never move again.

The executioners work slowly and methodically. They split the task between them. One works one half of the platform; the other works the other half. They will kill four prisoners each.

The executioners sometimes reach forward to position a head, much as a barber will move a customer’s head to get a better angle. The executioner then raises his curved sword and brings it down swiftly, severing the prisoner’s neck with one blow. After each head drops to the platform, a funeral worker rushes forward and covers the body and head with a white burial shroud. The spurting blood from the neck immediately colors the sheet a brutal red.

The women are neither first nor the last to die. One executioner kills both women because they are in his sector next to the artist. The young woman dies first, then the executioner steps over to a man and executes him then steps back and beheads the older woman.

I feel as though I am watching something unreal, almost a dream. My heart pounds, and my head feels light. I’m watching people die, I scream to myself.

The executioner saves the young artist for last, probably because he knows the young man will be difficult. The executioner positions the young man’s head, but the head moves back to the same unsuitable position. The executioner pats him on the shoulder and speaks briefly to him, but the young man refuses to move his head. The executioner gently massages the young man’s neck and again speaks to him. The executioner seems to be in no hurry, but he has a job to do. The young man will die that morning, that much is certain. The struggle is understandable but useless in the end.

Finally, the executioner gives up. He steps back and brings his sword down on the young man’s neck. The sword cuts his neck but does not sever it. The young man falls to the side, his head hanging off the platform, only partially severed from his body. His body twitches a bit, and I think for a moment he may still be conscious, but I hope it was just the natural relaxing of the body in death. The executioner swings his sword again and almost completely severs the neck, but it still remains attached by a small flap of flesh. He raises his sword and cuts the flap to free the head.  A worker steps forward and covers the body with a white shroud.

10:45: The execution is over quickly, ten minutes after the arrival of the vans, five minutes after the first prisoner is executed. The platform is awash in blood. The funeral workers begin gathering up the bodies in the bloody shrouds. The people in the front rows leave, and those who were too far behind to see the execution surge forward hoping at least to see the gruesome task of removing the bodies. Since the prisoners were all Muslims, the bodies will be buried outside of town in a Muslim burial ground. The family could request return of the body, Tariq says, but few have the money to pay the freight charges. The head will be sewed back on the body if it is returned, he says. There is some doubt that this is all true, that families are even informed that their loved one has been executed. Anyway, this is Saudi Arabia, which has two of the holiest sites of Islam, the cities of Mecca and Medina. There is no better place for a Muslim to be buried.

A water truck moves forward after the last body is removed and placed in the funeral van. Workers wash and scrub down the platform and remove every trace of blood.

11:30: The crowd is gone. The area around the platform where eight people have just died is still damp from the water that was used to clean it. Eight people are dead, and more may die on Friday and maybe next Tuesday.

But they don’t die because they aren’t informed of the risks. Everyone who applies for a visa must sign a statement that clearly states that the penalty for drug smuggling is death. I had to sign such a statement. The ticket agent in the airport where the smugglers board their airplane repeats the same warning to every passenger in various languages. The immigration card that passengers must fill out has the message printed in bright red.  

The numerous executions are reported in the press and on radio and TV in countries that provide most of the drug smugglers.  Before the workers leave home, they hear the message repeated over and over: Don’t smuggle drugs because Saudi Arabia plays rough.  If you smuggle, you die.

I doubt that anyone in the crowd at the execution will ever smuggle drugs, and when they describe to their friends back home the horror they’ve seen, perhaps their friends won’t either. But there will be those whose stupidity, naiveté, desperation, or sheer criminal nature will lead them to smuggle drugs into a country that kills drug smugglers. If I ever attend another execution, I will see them there.