Wanted: Executioners. What's behind Saudi Arabia job posting

Saudi Arabia is advertising for eight new executioners. The hiring is prompted by a rise in the frequency of capital and corporal punishment.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP
Sri Lankan women shout slogans during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 11, 2013, condemning the execution of Sri Lankan domestic worker Rizana Nafeek in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is looking for a few good executioners.

That's according to a job posting on a Saudi government site that got a flood of international attention.

On Monday, the kingdom's Ministry of Civil Service advertised eight positions for executioners, for “carrying out the death sentence according to Islamic Shariah after it is ordered by a legal ruling.”

No specific background or education is required, simply, The New York Times suggests, "a strong constitution."

Besides raising eyebrows, however, the unusual job posting signals what some are calling a deeper problem in the Gulf kingdom, a rise in the frequency of capital and corporal punishment.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia's execution rate has come under international scrutiny. The country is among the top five executioners in the world. According to Amnesty International, it ranked No. 3 in 2014, after China and Iran (and ahead of Iraq and the US).

A man beheaded on Sunday was the 85th person this year to be executed, as recorded by the official Saudi Press Agency.

That's compared to 88 Saudi executions in the whole of 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. (By comparison, some 35 prisoners were executed in the United States in 2014.)

Human rights groups are expecting a spike in the number of executions Saudi Arabia performs in the coming years – which is why the Gulf Kingdom is looking for executioners.

Why the rise in executions?

Diplomats told Reuters it may be because more judges have been appointed, allowing a backlog of appeal cases to be heard.

Political analysts told BBC it may also "reflect a tough response to regional trouble."

Saudi Arabia has been working aggressively to stamp out Yemen's Houthi rebel group, which seized Yemen's capital Sanaa and forced its president to flee the country. Saudi Arabia's tough regional stance on the Houthi rebels reflects a desire not to have to deal with them within Saudi borders – and it may be sending a signal to outsiders with its "zero tolerance" policy inside its borders. 

Saudi Arabia has come under fire not just for the number of executions it is carrying out, but for the offenses it punishes with death.

While most have been executed for murder, Saudi Arabia also punishes drug dealing, arms smuggling, and other violent crimes with death, "usually by beheading in a public square," reports The New York Times.

"Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery – that result in no loss of life – are particularly egregious,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters last year.

But Saudi officials are defending their justice system.

"When we do it in Saudi Arabia, we do it as a decision made by a court," an Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, told NBC News earlier this year. "The killing is a decision. I mean it is not based on arbitrary choices, to kill this and not to kill this."

In light of the spike in executions and the job posting suggesting more to come, human rights groups are particularly critical of Saudi Arabia's record – and concerned about future executions.

As Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, wrote in a recent Amnesty report, “This unprecedented spike in executions constitutes a chilling race to the bottom for a country that is already among the most prolific executioners on the planet."

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