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Saturday, October 2, 1999 Published at 17:33 GMT 18:33 UK

World: Middle East

Last-minute reprieve for Saudi killer

A convicted killer in Saudi Arabia has been pardoned by his victim's family, only minutes before he was due to be beheaded in a public square.

Saudi newspapers reported that the victim's two sons spoke to the condemned man as he was being led to his execution on Friday in the city of Abha in the south of the kingdom.

[ image: Death by the sword is a regular feature of Saudi life]
Death by the sword is a regular feature of Saudi life
The sons asked the 70-year-old man, identified as Muhammad Abdullah al-Hajji, if his 1993 killing of Yahya al-Mahaj had been premeditated.

The man said it was not, and the sons exercised their right under Islamic law to have him pardoned.

The newspaper al-Iqtisadia said Mr Hajji "swore by God that he had only come to resolve a dispute" between the dead man and a third party.

The crowd which had gathered to witness the beheading is reported to have reacted with shouts of joy and "Allahu akbar" (God is great).

The paper said some onlookers fainted during the ensuing emotional scenes.

Harsh justice

About 700 people, many of them foreign nationals, have been executed in Saudi Arabia since 1990.

The legal authorities enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law and beheading by the sword is routinely handed down for murder, rape, drug smuggling and armed robbery.

[ image: Eleventh-hour pardons cause great commotion in Saudi Arabia]
Eleventh-hour pardons cause great commotion in Saudi Arabia
In rarer cases, people are beheaded for renouncing Islam, which also carries a death penalty.

Human rights groups regularly criticise the Saudi authorities for the arbitrary application and inhumane nature of the punishment.

There is also concern about the preponderance of foreigners who are executed and the harsh methods often used to obtain confessions from people accused of capital offences.

In cases of rape and murder, the victim or their relatives have the sole right to pardon the condemned, ask for blood money, or demand the death penalty.

Blood money

Al-Riyadh newspaper said the al-Mahaj brothers pardoned al-Hajji "to please God" and renounced their right to blood money.

Public beheadings are a regular feature of life in Saudi Arabia and merit little more than short reports on TV and the papers, although they are attended by hundreds of people.

By contrast, cases of eleventh-hour clemency cause great interest and emotional outpourings.

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