By Stefan J. Bos
Saudi Arabia is ending flogging as a form of punishment amid efforts to modernize the judicial system, according to a document obtained by several media outlets. The kingdom’s top court said in written remarks that flogging would be replaced by prison sentences or fines, or a mixture of both.
The ‘General Commission for the Supreme Court’ also wrote that the decision taken this month was “an extension of the human rights reforms introduced under the direction of King Salman.” Its ruling was carried out under the “direct supervision of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman,” the court explained.
It followed an international outcry over Saudi Arabia’s treatment of dissidents and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Christians, mostly migrants, have also reported abuse in the Islamic nation.
Flogging has been applied to punish dissidents on trumped-up charges and a variety of crimes in Saudi Arabia, including criticism the leadership, public intoxication and harassment, rights groups say.
Without a codified system of law to go with the texts making up sharia, or Islamic law, individual judges have the liberty to interpret religious texts. They often come up with harsh sentences.
Rights groups have documented past cases in which Saudi judges have sentenced criminals to receive flogging for a range of offenses.
The last time when flogging in Saudi Arabia hit the headlines was in 2015 as blogger Raif Badawi was subjected to the punishment in public. The online writer was reportedly convicted of cybercrime and insulting Islam.
Badawi had been due to receive 1,000 lashes in weekly beatings, but global outrage and reports that he nearly died put a stop to that part of his sentence.
Experts say that besides severely breaking the skin and causing heavy bruising, flogging can lead to nerve damage, infections, psychological trauma, and even death in extreme cases.
Before this month’s decision, flogging was typically carried out with a cane, on the back, and in a public square, according to advocacy group Amnesty International. People were often allowed to wear a layer of clothing.