(source, “chop chop square” in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the executions take place)
From an article by Adam St Patrick in The Walrus Magazine:
A slender sword – four feet of shining steel, curved at the end – hovers high above a kneeling figure shrouded in white. Only the kneeler’s neck is exposed. Sixty or so men watch from the edge of a granite courtyard, behind a patchy line of eight soldiers in tan uniforms. The man wielding the sword looms high, almost spectral, in a flowing white dishdasha and a red-checked head cloth. He is ready to swing but then steps back. He huddles with two police and the one person who can make this stop: the victim of the crime that’s being punished.
The huddle breaks, and the executioner retakes his position, left of the condemned. He sets his right leg forward and his left leg back, as if about to stretch his left calf. Sunlight flashes on the blade as he draws it above his head. … [He] gently lowers the blade to jab at the condemned’s neck, which jerks the prisoner’s body to attention. Then the real blow: the blade is drawn high up, then swung back down. It cleaves skin, muscle, and bone with a hollow, echoing thud. A lurid crimson waterfall chases the head to the granite with the sound of a wet rag being wrung out over a stainless steel sink. The body sways forward, snaps up, and slumps off to the right.
This is Saudi Arabia, one of the last places on earth where capital punishment is a public spectacle. Decapitation awaits murderers, but the death penalty also applies to many other crimes, such as armed robbery, rape, adultery, drug use and trafficking, and renouncing Islam. There’s a woman on death row now for witchcraft, and the charge is based partly on a man’s accusation that her spell made him impotent.
Saudi Arabia executed some 1,750 convicts between 1985 and 2008, yet reliable information about the practice is scarce. In Riyadh, beheadings happen at 9 a.m. any given day of the week, and there is no advance notice.
Beheadings take place in a downtown public square equipped with a drain the size of a pizza box in its centre. Expatriates call it Chop Chop Square (see image above). I showed up at 9 a.m. most days for several weeks. After arriving at the barren granite expanse for yet another morning, I’d drink tea with merchants in the bazaar next door. Popular opinion seems to allow more respect for the executioners than sympathy for those wrongfully convicted, and rumors about the mysterious swordsmen abound. He must kill, one carpet dealer told me. If he doesn’t kill for a few days, they give him a sheep to kill. The job is a coveted one, often passed from father to son. In a Lebanese TV clip now on YouTube, a Saudi executioner shows off his swords and describes his approach: If the heart is compassionate, the hand fails.