By Russell Goldman / ABCNews.go.com
Rizana Nafeek, a young nanny from Sri Lanka, was beheaded by sword earlier this year in Saudi Arabia, punishment for allegedly killing a baby in 2007 when she was believed to be just 17.
The execution has spurred international outcry, given Nafeek’s age at the time of the incident and her limited access to a defense attorney. The beheading has also shined a light on the Arab kingdom’s medieval system of punishment, which includes cutting the hands off thieves, executing women accused of adultery, and flogging men accused of being gay.
Few details of Nafeek’s execution have leaked from the country’s tightly controlled media, but the interior ministry said her head was severed from her body in public in Dawadmy, a dusty suburb of the capital Riyadh.
In modern times, women in saudi Arabia condemned to death were traditionally executed by gunfire, but in recent years they have routinely been beheaded, an historic form of execution ordered under sharia, or the Muslim religious law that governs the country.
The death penalty is routinely allowed for criminals convicted of murder, rape, armed robbery, drug trafficking or drug use, and apostasy or the renunciation of the Islamic faith, according to human rights group Amnesty International.
Some 82 executions were carried out in Saudi Arabia last year, according to Amnesty. It is unknown how many of them were women or carried out by sword, but the majority of the condemned were foreigners, like Nafeek.
Beheadings in Saudi Arabia are governed by certain rules.
They are conducted in public, typically in town squares or near prisons. The condemned, as well as the executioner, typically wear white. The convict is blindfolded, handcuffed and often given a sedative. A plastic tarp, several feet wide, is sometimes spread out around the convict to make cleaning up the blood and recovering her head easier.
The heads of the condemned can sometimes roll several feet from the body, said Saudi Arabia’s leading executioner in a rare 2003 interview with Saudi newspaper Arab News.
“The criminal was tied and blindfolded. With one stroke of the sword I severed his head. It rolled meters away,” said executioner Muhammad Saad al-Beshi, recalling his first beheading.
Al-Beshi said he has executed as many as 10 people in one day, by sword and by bullet.
“It depends what they ask me to use. Sometimes they ask me to use a sword and sometimes a gun. But most of the time I use the sword,” he said.
He said he keeps his sword razor sharp, and allows his children to help clean it.
“People are amazed how fast it can separate the head from the body,” he said.
Executioners like Al-Beshi are trained professionals who also carry out amputations, severing the hands, feet, and tongues, of convicted criminals.
The executioner said it is not uncommon for spectators to pass out at a beheading.
“There are many people who faint when they witness an execution. I don’t know why they come and watch if they don’t have the stomach for it,” he said.
The goal of the executions is to provide justice to the victims’ families, said Brian Evans, director of the Amnesty’s death penalty abolition campaign. As a result, a victim’s family is allowed to call off the execution at the last minute.
“There is always a dramatic moment where the victim’s family has to give the OK, a thumbs up or thumbs down,” said Evans.
Only an adult male family member is allowed to stay an execution and they typically only occur in cases where a Saudi national has been condemned and the family been paid so-called “blood money,” Evans said.
The government of Sri Lanka reportedly tried to buy Nafeek’s life with a blood money payment.
The executioner, flanked by several uniformed police officers, prays with the condemned before severing the head with a quick stroke to the back of the head.
“When they get to the execution square, their strength drains away. Then I read the execution order, and at a signal I cut the prisoner’s head off,” al-Beshi said.
Bodies are sometimes put on crosses to be observed by the public as a warning. In one case in 2011, when an Indonesian maid was beheaded (see picture), her body was reportedly displayed by being hung from a helicopter.