Experts: Beheadings pervert legitimate law
By Christy Oglesby
Paul Johnson Jr. and his wife, Noom
Paul Johnson Jr. was beheaded by his captors in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi operation targeted suspected al Qaeda militants in Riyadh.
(CNN) -- Muslim captors who behead their hostages call it execution, but many more call it murder.
And the Tuesday discovery of American Paul Johnson Jr.'s head in the freezer of a Saudi Arabian villa rekindled the horror a succession of decapitations created in recent months.
Experts on Islam and Arab culture have said the kidnappers who behead civilians likely point to the strictest interpretation of Islamic law -- Shariah -- as justification for their deeds. But several contend that comparison is not a legitimate one.
Executions are part of a judicial process. But Daniel Pearl, Paul Johnson, Nicholas Berg and Kim Sun-il were all killed, although never arrested, tried or convicted of crimes.
"It's not even a perversion of the law," said Samer Shehata of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. "It's just a perversion because the law does not say you have to behead someone.
"It's absurd to even speak about it in [a legal context]. These are terrorists, extremists, who want to draw attention to themselves at maximum impact by gruesome images and horrific acts."
And there's another important distinction: the victim's suffering. In countries that practice beheading in the context of a legal execution, professionals carry out the act swiftly, generally with one blow, and death occurs within seconds.
But that has not been the case with some of the recent decapitations.
"It was akin to an animal being slaughtered," said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University who saw one of the executions on a Web site. "It was literally how you slaughter sheep. ...They slit the throat (at) the two carotid arteries, and they severed the head."
The beheadings have caused revulsion in the United States, where legal execution occurs in front of limited spectators and with a ban on anything "cruel and unusual."
But experts say the recent beheadings are considered heinous in Arab and Muslim nations despite decapitation being a permissible punishment in some Middle Eastern countries.
"Many people in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and elsewhere think that beheading -- if it is done appropriately, that is, if a person is found guilty at the end of a trial with evidence and witnesses, and [the execution] is done in a humane manner -- then it would be acceptable," said Shehata, an assistant professor of politics.
"But that is a fundamentally different scenario," he said, "than the case of Nick Berg or Paul Johnson or the South Korean, where someone just took a kitchen knife and cut somebody's head off. That is disgusting universally."
Although once allowed in France, Britain, other European countries and the state of Utah in the United States, decapitation as a punishment no longer exists in the Western world.
"I think they have chosen this form of execution because it has a terrifying effect," said Michael Doran, an expert on Islam at the Council of Foreign Relations.
"When you hear about the Irish reporter who was shot in Riyadh and then Johnson, who was beheaded, the Johnson beheading had a much greater effect than the shooting of the Irish reporter," said Doran, who teaches Near Eastern studies at Princeton University.
Criminal code, spiritual law
Beheading as an execution option remains a part of the criminal legal code in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and Qatar, Haykel said. Only Saudi Arabia continues the practice.
However, insurgents justify the decapitations they conduct by pointing to spiritual laws, Haykel said.
"The terrorists have said ... the movement of al Qaeda represents the true Islamic state... and [they] claim the right to kill prisoners of war," said Haykel, the author of several books on Islam.
"That is consistent with Islamic law if one recognizes al Qaeda as the properly constituted head of the Islamic state," Haykel said. "It is a legitimate practice in Islamic law to behead your enemy if the ruler so deems it as a punishment that is required."
Doran concurred that the militants may be looking to Shariah to justify the brutality of the deaths.
"You can come up with a Shariah justification for it," he said, "but you can come up with a Shariah justification for a lot of things."