If you’ve been keeping an eye on the news recently, you may have heard Amnesty International condemning a Saudi Arabian court ruling that Ali al-Khawahir was to be deliberately paralysed for stabbing his friend in the back 10 years ago, unless he could come up with £180,000 in compensation.It’s hard to decide where to start with this one – Is it the barbaric, ‘eye for an eye’ punishment, or the fact that someone who has access to funds can buy their way out of the punishment?
When “eye for an eye” appeared in the Code of Hamurabi, and slightly later (though not believed to be derivative) in the Mosaic Law, it was an improvement on the status quo. Before that, it was quite common for the retribution to be significantly worse than the original crime – lex talonis (its fancy Latin name) enforced a limit on punishment, an early implementation of proportionality. Today, I feel like we’ve moved on.
As for being able to buy your way out of punishment, most western countries dropped that approach some time ago. Debtor’s prisons in Europe and the US were phased out during the 19th Century. Justice shouldn’t rest on whether you can afford to purchase freedom. Sadly, in Saudi Arabia, it does – Diyya is a well-established aspect of Sharia Law.
But both of these were rendered moot when Saudi Arabia denied the story, stating that: “This [the accusation] is untrue. This was the sentence handed down by the judge who dismissed the request of such punishment.”
There has been considerable public outrage about the reported punishment. I’m not surprised that people are outraged about the suggestion that paralysing someone might be an appropriate punishment, I am surprised however, that there has been outcry about this sentence, while death sentences pass without comment.
Paralysis as a punishment feels really wrong. There’s something brutal, something visceral about clinically severing someone’s spine, but is it worse than taking someone’s life?
This report led to an inevitable twitterstorm of outrage, with calls for Britain to cut off diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. Politicians across the globe were prompted to respond with “concern”. And yet, when western countries, choose to execute people, we hear very little.
The United States has executed 1,321 prisoners since 1976 and is currently holding 3,100.prisoners on death row. I despair that, in many parts of the western world, it is simply assumed that the death penalty is moral, and yet we all (even the Saudis) agree that judicially-ordered paralysis is evil.
Let’s consider a continuum of judicial punishment: At one end we have a telling off, or a warning; as we proceed, we pass fines and community service; eventually reaching imprisonment, with tariffs stretching all the way to life imprisonment. But what’s at the end? It must be the death penalty. Surely life is the last thing that can be taken from us – the ultimate sanction?
Except I realise that there are things worse than death, even for people like me who don’t believe in an afterlife. For someone living a lifetime of torture, death might be preferable. Once someone has experienced enough pain for enough time, they might choose to die rather than suffer further. But I don’t see being paralysed is the same as eternal torture.
Paralysis is not an appropriate punishment. I find it and the death penalty both barbaric and immoral. However, in my gut, paralysing someone is worse than capital punishment, but I struggle to explain, from a logical standpoint, why.
Personally, I’d rather be having a different discussion: one that is about ending capital punishment completely, so that we aren’t ever in a position to be trading off the relative merits (or demerits) of brutal and ineffective punishments. Because right now, I think I’ve made myself a little bit sick thinking about the things that we do to each other in the name of Justice.