Thursday, 29 September 2011

Unequal in Death

Our good friends the Saudis beheaded a Sudanese man last week for the crime of "sorcery". Abdul al-Fakki's offence, such as it was, was to take money from undercover members of the religious police in exchange for casting a love-spell. His trial and conviction took place as long ago as 2007, but although Amnesty International put out a press release a while ago there was no international campaign to free him. He languished on death row, ignored, for years and news of his gruesome death equally passed without comment from most of the world's major media outlets (though an obscure blogger at the New Statesman gave it a mention).

Meanwhile, yesterday's news that a woman was facing ten strokes of the lash for daring to drive a car in that progressive kingdom quickly became an international cause celebre - to the extent that King Abdullah has intervened to halt the penalty. Good for him, but however deplorable the idea of flogging a woman driver seems to Western sensibilities chopping a man's head off for a wholly imaginary crime is surely somewhat worse.

Al-Fakki, incidentally, would seem to be the first person executed for "sorcery" in Saudi Arabia since a man was beheaded in 2007 for a combination of sorcery, adultery and desecrating a Koran. A woman, Fawza Falih, died last year of ill-health and ill-treatment, still in prison on death row after being convicted of witchcraft on the basis of a probably forced confession. (Judith Weingarten has an excellent account of her case here.)Ali Sibat, a Labenese national whose "crime" seems to have consisted of telling fortunes on satellite TV, came close to being beheaded last year - but his case attracted sufficient international attention for the authorities to be shamed into staying the execution. He remains under sentence of death.

None of these cases have attracted anything like the public interest given to Troy Davis, whose execution last week by the US State of Georgia went ahead despite a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court and a worldwide media campaign based on doubts about his guilt. Nor have they attracted anything like the attention now being paid to the case of the Iranian Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani. He is facing the death penalty - by the cruel Iranian method of hanging - for apostasy. Not only was he born into a Muslim family, he has publicly proclaimed his new-found faith and he has declined no fewer than four opportunities to recant Christianity.

Extreme religious intolerance of this kind is not limited to Iran. Indeed, it seems to be rarer in Iran than in Saudi Arabia, where the practice of Christianity even by European or American expats is banned, or in our other ally, Pakistan. Death sentences for "apostasy" are vanishingly rare in Iran - the offence, as Nadarkhani's lawyers point out, is not even properly defined in Iranian law. In Pakistan, death sentences for "blasphemy" - often imposed on Christians - are now almost routine. Even if they are very rarely carried out, those accused face mob justice if they are ever released, and politicians who dare to suggest that the crime of blasphemy ought to be revisited tend to be shot.

None of this makes the predicament that Mr Nadarkhani finds himself in anything other than intolerable, or should undermine the campaign to save him. The death penalty for convicted murderers is wrong, but imposing it on members of religious minorities is worse. Freedom of religion and conscience is an inalienable human right. The fact that Nadarkhani could probably save himself by returning to the Islam of his parents serves, if anything, to render the threat of hanging especially cruel. It is of course a choice that has faced many Christians down the centuries: whether to recant and (perhaps) be damned, or to wear the crown of martyrdom. The blood of the martyrs was once the seed of the church. But this is the twenty-first century.

Nevertheless the attention given to this case is striking. It has been the lead item on today's PM on Radio 4, and has attracted vocal support from both politicians and religious leaders, to say nothing of influential bloggers. More than 19,000 emails have so far been sent in protest to the Iranian embassy in London alone. It's a remarkable success for a campaign that only began three days ago, whatever the ultimate result may be. Meanwhile the annual number of executions in China, for all manner of offences, runs into thousands. How many attract any international notice whatever?