RIYADH Saudi Arabia amputated the hand of a thief on Monday, carrying out a rarely implemented Islamic punishment in a year when the number of public beheadings is nearing a peak in the conservative kingdom.
The right hand of Amr Nasr, an Egyptian man, was removed in Mecca after he was found guilty of pick-pocketing inside the Grand Mosque, the official Saudi Press Agency said.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, applies a literal reading of Sunni Islamic law, and regularly beheads those convicted of murder, rape, drugs smuggling and armed robbery.
A spokesman for New York-based Human Rights Watch said the Islamic punishment of hand amputation for theft is rarely implemented and this was the first case in years.
"Saudi judges have not imposed that punishment for years. In fact, they have wide discretion in determining sentences for crimes," Christoph Wilcke told Reuters.
Petty theft at the mosque in Mecca, which throngs with thousands of visiting pilgrims all year round, is common and pilgrims often lose sandals left at entrances to the site, Islam's holiest shrine.
Saudi media has talked of fears of an increase in organised crime by expatriates who make up around one third of the 24-million population and analysts say clerics of Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic Wahhabi school fear losing their grip on society. Clerics dominate the legal system, acting as judges.
Executions this year -- at around 130 -- have more than tripled from 38 in 2006. The number is approaching 1995's total of 192 as tallied by Reuters, which rights groups say is the highest number since they started monitoring executions in the kingdom.
Drug smugglers constitute a significant number of those beheaded this year in a country where drug abuse among young men is now regarded as a national crisis.
Last week an Egyptian man was beheaded for "sorcery", adultery and desecrating the Koran by placing it in a bathroom. A Shi'ite was also executed for organising a prison escape.
Zoheir al-Harithy, spokesman for the official Human Rights Commission, said it was possible that the rise in executions is due to clearing out a backlog in the system.
"It's good that they announce it, at least we know that the cases took place," he said.
There are no public statistics on how many people are awaiting implementation of sentences.
In an apparent acknowledgement of problems, King Abdullah last month announced legal reforms which the Human Rights Commission has said will include formalising the penal code.