A Saudi Arabian court has ruled that a convicted man’s spinal cord should be severed so he is paralyzed as part of the kingdom’s Islamic-law-oriented retribution for similar injuries he is said to have inflicted upon another man in a fight.
The ruling has prompted an outcry from human rights groups and an intervention from Saudi officials who say they are trying to persuade the victim to accept monetary compensation for his injuries instead of the punishment against the criminal.
According to reports from Saudi Arabia, the court in Tabuk, on the northwest coast of the kingdom, has approached a number of hospitals about the possibility of cutting the convicted man’s spinal cord.
So far at least two hospitals have refused to carry out the procedure, citing ethical concerns.
In the Saudi justice system, the court establishes guilt and the family of the victim or the victim himself has the option of inflicting the same injury upon the guilty party, seeking blood money or offering a pardon.
“The sentence of ‘an eye for an eye’ has always been in conflict with medical ethics,” said Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher for Saudi Arabia at Human Rights Watch, adding, “This case is a new angle in the sense that doctors are speaking out.”
Amnesty International urged Saudi authorities not to deliberately paralyze the man.
The punishment amounts to “nothing less than torture,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, acting director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.
“While those guilty of a crime should be held accountable, intentionally paralyzing a man in this way would constitute torture, and be a breach of its international human rights obligations,” she added.
The defendant, whose identity has not been revealed, was sentenced to seven months imprisonment for the offense and was convicted after a trial where he was said to have had no legal assistance.
The victim, 22-year-old Abdulaziz al-Mutairi, was struck with a cleaver in a fight more than two years ago. The injuries left him paralyzed.
A Saudi Embassy spokesman in Washington did not return phone calls for comment.
It is unusual for such cases to come to light.
“That is always the caveat when you deal with Saudi Arabia and court verdicts. As a rule, nobody sits in on court verdicts except for the person concerned. … So you can take for granted that we don’t hear of a vast majority of those cases,” Mr. Wilcke said.
Other cases of retribution sentences, known in Arabic as “qisas,” have included eye-gouging, tooth extraction, and death in cases involving murder. Under the Saudi justice system, people are flogged for some offenses, thieves have their limbs amputated and those found guilty of murder, rape, drug smuggling or blasphemy are beheaded in public.
Saudi officials, meanwhile, say they are trying to persuade the paralyzed man to drop the demand that the defendant’s spinal cord be severed and instead accept compensation.
A spokesman for the court said it had ruled for monetary compensation to be paid to Mr. al-Mutairi and that the Tabuk provincial governor, Prince Fahad Bin Sultan, had ordered mediation between the two parties, according to a Reuters news agency report from Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
“Mutairi did request that the attacker face the same bodily harm he received, but the court ruled that he is to obtain a financial compensation agreed upon between the two parties,” the spokesman said.
“When Mutairi insisted that the assailant face the same condition he is in, we contacted hospitals to persuade him that such operation may cause death. The governor is sending envoys to mediate,” he added.
Retaliation cases in which organs are removed have been exceedingly rare over the past few years in the kingdom and get very little Saudi attention.
It is customary in Saudi Arabia and many other parts of the Islamic world for people of good intention to try to persuade the victim’s family to either issue a pardon or accept compensation.
In the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, an official committee is tasked with intervening with the families.
Saudi royals usually contribute toward any financial settlement, while ordinary Saudis also often give money.
“There will be a lot of pressure, political and social, not to inflict the same punishment, but to accept money or issue a pardon,” Mr. Wilcke said.
But, he added, there have been cases in which even exceedingly poor families have turned down millions of riyals and insist that they want the punishment to be meted out.
• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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