March 4, 2008 -- Saudi Arabians recoiled this week at the news that a man allegedly decapitated a 15-month-old baby before his mother's eyes inside a crowded Riyadh supermarket.
"It was shocking for everyone. No one can believe it happened. … It was very depressing," said Samar Fatany, a journalist and women's rights activist in Riyadh.
On Sunday morning a 25-year-old Syrian man beheaded his nephew at Al-Marhaba supermarket, Arab News reported. The man reportedly killed the child after an argument with his sister and brother-in-law.
"It happened so quickly. Before people could intervene, the man had cut more than half way through the child's neck," said Abu Muhammad, a grandfather in his mid-60s, told Arab News.
"He was doing it to get back at his brother-in-law who was always threatening to take the child away from his sister," said Fatany, a contributor to the Arab News.
Some onlookers reportedly fainted at the sight of the body. The accused man was taken into custody and is expected to face the death penalty.
"There were plenty of witnesses, the facts of the case are clear, the evidence is abundant," said Christoph Wilcke, of Human Right's Watch, and an expert on Saudi Arabian law
Wilcke adds, however, that under Saudi law, even if a judge ruled for the death penalty the victim's family could choose to pardon the killer -- perhaps more of a possibility in this case because the alleged killer and victim are related.
If it turns out the the man snapped as the result of mental illness he could also be eligible for a pardon, though Wilcke says that is uncommon.
"I've never heard the insanity defense work in this Saudi Arabia. The concept of mental capacity exists, I just can't think of a real case where it applied," Wilcke said.
This is the latest in a handful of criminal justice cases in Saudi Arabia that have grabbed Western attention in the last year.
In December 2008 a Saudi Arabian rape victim was charged with jail time and 200 lashes after being found in a car with a man to whom she was not related - a verdict that prompted international outrage from Human Rights Watch and other foreign observers, including the White House and U.S. presidential contenders Sen. Hilary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama. The woman, known anonymously in the Saudi press as "Qatif Girl" was eventually released from jail and later pardoned by Saudi King Abdullah.
Fawza Falih, a Saudi woman, is currently awaiting execution after being found guilty of witchcraft in 2005. Dozens of Saudi men were arrested last month for allegedly flirting with women in front of a shopping mall in Mecca. In January, a woman was arrested after having a Starbucks coffee with a male business colleague.
As the decapitation case moves forward, Saudi Arabians are left recovering from the shock.
"For a whole two days everybody was depressed and too shocked for words. It is not something you hear of every day here. It is not something accepted or part of the culture," said Fatany.