The Execution of the Saudi Seven

Saudi Arabia's farcical justice system condemned seven young men to death this week, and the world remained silent.

As I wrote this article on the night of March 12 in Washington, seven young men -- all in their early twenties -- were still alive and praying to God for some last-minute grace to save them from facing a firing squad outside the palatial offices of the governor of Saudi Arabia's Aseer province, Faisal Ben Khalid, who ordered their execution.

Their prayers fell on deaf ears in the kingdom. The men, who were convicted of armed robbery, were executed on March 13, in a move denounced by Amnesty International as an "act of sheer brutality."

Hundreds of people are executed in Saudi Arabia every year -- because some executions are carried out in secret, no one knows the real numbers. In 2007, the newspaper Arab News reported that 400 people remained on death row in the province of Makka alone. There are 12 other regions in the kingdom, so the total number of people awaiting execution could easily reach several thousand.

The Saudi government runs one of the most backward and xenophobic judicial systems on the planet. There is no formal legal code. Judges must all espouse the government-approved Salafi version of Islam. Blacks, who make up around 10 percent of the population, are banned from judgeships -- as are women and Muslims who observe a different version of the faith -- because the monarchy's religious tradition still views blacks as slaves, other Muslims as heretics, and women as half human. There is only one word to describe such a system: apartheid.

In addition, the judicial branch is part of the government -- a blatant conflict with the supposed neutrality of judges. The Saudi justice minister also serves as president of the Saudi Supreme Court. That would be like having U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The condemned men hail from the southern tribes of Saudi Arabia, which have been a target of the monarchy's systematic discrimination. Since the foundation of Saudi Arabia in 1932, there has not been a single minister from the south, which composes 27 percent of the population and is inhabited largely by Sunni Muslims who follow the government-sanctioned Salafi doctrine. Before his death, one of the executed men, Saeed al-Shahrani, even refused to provide his photo for this article because he followed the government fatwas banning photos of live objects. That's more than can be said of the members of the ruling family: The royals in the House of Saud are notorious for plastering pictures of themselves in every place possible.

The body of one of the men, Sarhan al-Mashayekh, was supposed to be put on public display for three days, according to the execution warrant.  But because everything in Saudi Arabia is political, that did not happen. The government likely feared that such an act would attract international embarrassment, and possibly a violent reaction by the large southern tribes. The executed men came from five large tribes, and thousands of people gathered to protest when the men were killed -- photos provided by an eyewitness showed hundreds of well-armed soldiers and dozens of armored vehicles protecting the scene of the execution.

The young men were sentenced for robbing several jewelry stores at gunpoint seven years ago. No one was killed, and the stolen gold was given back to the owners. Saeed, one of the convicted young men, who spoke to me daily since March 1 using a smuggled mobile phone, told me, "I was 15 and I did not carry a gun. I want to go to my family."

Poverty was the biggest factor behind this crime. All seven were unemployed and came from poor families, reflecting the severe economic conditions faced by many in Saudi Arabia. The unemployment rate in the kingdom is among the highest in the Middle East -- it runs over 40 percent among males and over 80 percent among females.

This massacre proves, once again, that Western governments never miss an opportunity to tell Saudi people: "We couldn't care less about your problems." Even the U.N. High Commissioner's office -- which called on governments around the world to halt the executions of prisoners, including Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein -- refused to make any public pleas on behalf of these young men before the executions.

Since I learned about these executions, I was spending 14 hours a day to contact as many governments as possible to push the Saudi monarchy for a delay and a retrial of these men. Yes, they admitted their guilt -- but they were tortured and had no access to counsel at any stage of the trial.

One of the letters I sent went to Lord Nicholas Philips, a former president of Britain's Supreme Court, asking him to petition the Saudi government for a stay and a retrial. Lord Philips is important because he had met with the Saudi minister of justice and, according to the official Saudi press, praised the Saudi justice system last April while receiving a Saudi delegation. That visit was an apparent attempt to convince the British chief justice to allow the signing of a prisoner-exchange agreement with Saudi Arabia. That agreement will allow the return of Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasir Al Saud, a Saudi prince who murdered his lover and manservant in a London hotel.

I believe the Saudi monarchy, which has been pushing for a prisoner exchange agreement with Britain to free the prince, would have accepted pardoning these seven young men if their death was an obstacle to freeing their murderous son. I was banking that Philips would adopt the cause of saving these lives.

I also appealed to State Department officials, noting that it was in their self-interest to intervene on behalf of these men. After a letter and copious phone calls, I was able to get across the point that executing seven men a mere day after Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up his first visit to Riyadh would look bad. Things appeared to change quickly after that -- the king granted a one-week stay of execution, presumably to avoid embarrassing his high-ranking American guest.

By the time I finished the first draft of this story, I received a grateful call from Saeed, but his call was cut off -- perhaps because armed guards had entered the chambers to take him to face his death. My friend Saeed, you remembered to call to say goodbye before you died. Farewell Saeed. I am sorry I could not do more.


National Security

Phasing Out

Time for Obama to scuttle the plan to shoot down non-existent Iranian ICBMs.

On March 12, Pentagon policy chief Jim Miller gave a speech on the Obama administration's plans for missile defense in Europe, saying that the first three phases of the system are on track. But, significantly, he did not mention the fourth phase, intended to defend against Iranian ICBMs, which do not yet exist. Then, in response to a question, Miller said, "We are continuing to look very hard at" whether to move forward with phase four or to pursue other options, given budget setbacks and technical issues.

This is welcome news. Until now, the administration has insisted that it would deploy all four phases of what is formally called the European Phased Adaptive Approach; in December 2010, in order to secure approval of the New START treaty, President Obama explicitly promised the Senate he would proceed with the full plan, assuming the Iranian missile threat continued to develop and the interceptor technology proved effective against it. But the United States does not need phase four, and it has become a significant roadblock to Obama's plans to seek another round of nuclear arms reductions with Russia. It is time to shift gears.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama announced that he would renew efforts to seek a second round of nuclear arms reduction talks with Russia, reportedly aiming to cut U.S. strategic forces by about one-third. According to diplomatic sources, Russia wants the United States to cancel phase four in Europe as a condition for arms reduction talks to proceed because it fears that the final phase of the missile defense system could threaten its nuclear deterrent.

The United States should not cancel phase four to appease Russia. The simpler reason is that the United States does not need phase four. Not only does the interceptor missile in question, the SM-3 IIB, have major unresolved technical issues, but the United States has other options to defend itself against future Iranian long-range missiles, should they appear, that are less objectionable to Russia. For example, Washington has an existing, albeit limited, missile defense system in Alaska and California, and Republicans in Congress are calling for a new missile defense deployment site on the East Coast.

Each phase of the administration's European missile defense plan comes with more capable interceptor missiles to keep pace with an evolving Iranian missile program. Phase one, with SM-3 IA short-range interceptors based on U.S. Navy ships and a radar in Turkey, is already deployed in the Mediterranean. Phases two and three, with more-advanced SM-3 interceptors based in Romania (2015) and Poland (2018), are planned to handle medium- and intermediate-range missile threats to Europe.

Phase four, however, is in a different league. The SM-3 IIB interceptor, planned for Poland, is intended to defend the United States -- not Europe -- from an Iranian long-range missile threat that does not yet exist, and is progressing more slowly than many had feared. The SM-3 IIB is planned to be bigger and faster than its predecessors, a SM-3 missile on steroids. But it's already behind schedule. Originally planned for 2020, phase four has been pushed back to 2022 at the earliest due to budget cutbacks imposed by Congress. It exists only on paper, and no ones knows how big it will be, how fast it will go, or where, ultimately, it will be based.

Last month, a congressionally-sponsored study based on classified technical reports found that this system may not be effective and that "modifications are needed" to its operational plan and where it would be fielded. Those changes could lead to significant safety risks, cost increases, and schedule delays.

Conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, the Feb. 11 study revealed that the Missile Defense Agency's own technical analysis found that forward deploying SM-3 IIBs in Poland "may require the development of the ability to launch the interceptor earlier," while the attacking missile's engines are still firing, "to be useful for U.S. homeland defense."

This may sound simple, but it's not. Attempting to intercept a missile just after "boost phase," known as "early intercept," is controversial even within MDA, which found in 2010 that it "was not a desirable capability" because it reduces the effective range of the missile. A 2012 MDA assessment found this concept was "feasible," but would require modifying the SM-3 IIB interceptor, command-and-control systems, and space-based sensors. 

Outside of MDA, early intercept is seen as impractical. In a Sept. 2011 report, the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Pentagon, concluded that early intercept "is not a useful objective for missile defense in general or for any particular missile defense system" because interceptors would not be able to reach the target quickly enough. Similarly, a September 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that "even in the best of cases" early intercept does not happen early enough to prevent warheads and decoys from being deployed.

To avoid basing in Poland and the need for early intercept, MDA analysis suggests putting the interceptors on ships in the North Sea. However, GAO found this option could have "significant safety risks" and "unknown, but likely substantial, cost implications."

As for safety, the SM-3 IIB may use a hazardous liquid propellant, which would increase speed and agility. The Navy, however, which would deploy the missiles on its Aegis-equipped ships, banned missiles with liquid fuel in 1988 due to fire hazard concerns. The Navy has not overturned this ban.

As for cost, the SM-3 IIB may need a 27-inch diameter booster, as opposed to the 21-inch diameter of other, slower SM-3 versions. This would be a significant cost issue for the Navy, which would have to outfit its ships with wider launchers. Moreover, a dedicated North Sea deployment would also require the Navy to commit more ships to the program than planned.

In addition, the NAS study found that interceptors based in Europe would require a velocity greater than 5 kilometers per second "to avoid being overflown by modestly lofted threats to the U.S. East Coast," and that such a high speed could not be achieved with a 21-inch diameter missile. But the Academy recommended against fielding such speedy interceptors in Europe as they would also be able to intercept Russian western-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and would "clearly exacerbate political tensions in the region."

Cancelling plans for the SM-3 IIB in Europe would have tremendous benefits for the United States and NATO. Both would benefit from U.S.-Russian nuclear arsenal reductions, in terms of increasing their security, saving money, and gaining more political support against the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorists and additional nations. The United States has other options to counter long-range missiles. And, as GAO has shown, the SM-3 IIB's technology, cost, and schedule are dubious in any case. It is time to weed out phase four and let the prospects for U.S.-Russian arms reductions grow.