SAUDI ARABIA has embarked on another orgy of head-chopping, decapitating 55 people this year -- almost double the executions carried out in 1998 -- including two women who were beheaded in public for allegedly trafficking in drugs.
Hawa Faruk and Aisha Saada Kassem had their heads cut off with swords -- after their scarves were torn from their heads by their executioners -- in Riyadh and Jeddah.
Both women were Nigerian. Faruk was decapitated May 28, and Kassem was executed before a large crowd outside a Jeddah mosque several weeks ago.
There have been no words of condemnation from the West, including the United States, whose troops continue to be based in Saudi Arabia and whose oil investments in the kingdom render even the slightest criticism impossible.
The women -- like the 53 male victims -- were tried in semi-secret courts.
An unusually large number of beheadings this year were carried out on foreigners. They included 10 Pakistanis for drug offenses, five Nigerians (four for alleged drug offenses, one for armed robbery), three Indians (two for drug-related crimes, one for rape), two Afghans, two Indonesians and a Syrian.
'With a sabre'
As usual, the Saudis announced each decapitation with a short paragraph in the government-controlled press. Aisha Kassem's execution -- "with a sabre," it was announced -- took place after she was convicted of "smuggling cocaine hidden in her intestines."
Up to five years ago, women were executed in Saudi prisons, sometimes by firing squad, but since 1996, the Saudis have beheaded women in public, often after Friday prayers and in front of hundreds of men.
In 1997, they executed three women -- Zahra Issa Ali and Bana Mohamed Adam, both Nigerians accused of drug trafficking, and Soleha Anam Kadiran, an Indonesian convicted of murdering a Saudi woman.
A year earlier, a Saudi woman, Dhafira bin Said bin Mohamed al-Salim, was beheaded for killing her husband, and two Indonesian women were decapitated for alleged drug trafficking.
In 1995, a Saudi mother and daughter were executed together, by the Dhahran executioner wielding a sword.
The worst year for executions in Saudi Arabia was 1995, when 192 of the condemned, seven of them women, went beneath the sword. There were 96 beheadings in 1996, 122 the next year and 29 last year.
Amnesty International regularly condemns Saudi Arabia for its executions and for the flimsy trials most of the victims receive. The hearings, Amnesty says, do not accord with the basic norms of international law and are often held in secret.
Visitors to Saudi Arabia have said that women convicted of drug offenses are sometimes rape victims who are murdered to prevent them from identifying their assailants.
Executioners usually clean their swords by wiping the blood on the white clothes of their newly-dead victims.
Saudi Arabia regularly justifies these bloody scenes by quoting from Koranic law, by reminding foreigners of Saudi tradition and by insisting on the integrity and humanity of its courts.
In one case last year, a Saudi executioner raised his sword over a condemned man's head, as the father of the boy he was accused of murdering stepped forward to pardon the prisoner. The executioner lowered his sword, and his would-be victim swooned. Still, death sentences are rarely commuted.
Death by the blade is something all Saudis know of but few wish to discuss. Recently I spoke to a man who had once flown over the Saudi desert with the old King Abdul Aziz.
"It was almost dark, and the king wanted to show me a village," the man said. "I didn't know why, but when we got overhead, it was just a deserted place with a few stray dogs.
"And then the king said to me: 'The people of this village used to rob the caravans to Mecca, and I warned them to stop. They didn't listen to me, so I warned them again. Again, they didn't listen. So I sent my guards to the village, and they cut off the heads of every man, woman and child. And they waited for villagers to return from far away. And they cut off their heads, too. And there was no more robbery. If you are going to rule, you must use your power and be firm.'"
If other Muslim nations think they can regard themselves as squeaky-clean in the execution stakes, here are a few statistics to suggest otherwise: This year, Iraq has executed 208 people, Iran 69, Yemen 17, Kuwait six and the United Arab Emirates two.
About four years ago, the Emirates executed an 18-year-old Sri Lankan girl on her birthday -- despite her denials that she had killed the baby she was looking after in an Arab home.
This year, the United States has executed 59 people by lethal injection and electric chair.
Robert Fisk wrote this article for the Independent, London.