Saudis urged to reverse death sentence on 'witchcraft'

Saudis urged to reverse

Saudi Arabia is being urged by Human Rights Watch to stop meting out the death penalty for alleged witchcraft. Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on Riyadh to cease applying capital punishment, to codify its criminal laws and update the criminal procedure law. "Saudi judges have harshly punished confessed 'witches' for what at worst appears to be fraud, but may well be harmless acts," HRW said. "Saudi judges should not have the power to end lives of persons at all, let alone those who have not physically harmed others." "There is no legal interpretation of these terms, and that's part of the problem," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. "Judges arbitrarily describe conduct - such as possession of an Amharic text - as 'sorcery' or 'witchcraft." "What's disturbing is that here in the 21st century, the Saudi government is still regularly prosecuting people for outdated, backwards concepts of 'witchcraft'," she said. Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy said the severe punishments were a derivative of the strict form of religion practiced in the kingdom. "Islam in general, and particularly the conservative brand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Gulf, does not accept any other supernatural forces other than the individual and society's relationship with God," he told The Media Line. "Anything that contravenes that is seen as blasphemy and against the will of God, so by severely punishing those practicing witchcraft, they are doing God's will." Saudi has convicted several people in the kingdom over the past few years for practicing witchcraft or sorcery. On November 9, Ali Sabat was sentenced to death by a Medina court for witchcraft. The sentence was based on advice and predictions that Sibat gave on Lebanese television. The Saudi religious police arrested at least two other people on counts of witchcraft in the past month, according to local media reports. Sibat was arrested in May 2008 in a hotel in Medina, where he was carrying out a pilgrimage before returning to his native Lebanon. Local media report that the only evidence against him is the divinations and life advice he gave on a Lebanese satellite television station. Other cases reveal a zero-tolerance policy towards what the Saudi authorities perceive as witchcraft. Mustafa Ibrahim, an Egyptian pharmacist working in Saudi Arabia, was executed in November 2007 for sorcery in Riyadh. He was found guilty for trying to separate a married couple "through sorcery," the Ministry of Interior said. A court in Jeddah tried a Saudi man this month, after he was arrested for smuggling a book of witchcraft into the kingdom. In a separate case reported by a local Saudi paper, the religious police in Taif arrested an Asian man for "sorcery" and "charlatanry" and accused him of trying to use supernatural powers to solve marital disputes and induce people to fall in love. Saudi citizen Fawza Falih was sentenced to death for witchcraft in 2006 after a "discretionary" conviction. HRW protested the sentence in 2008, but the Minister of Justice Abdallah Al A-Sheikh responded that the organization had "preconceived Western notions of Sharia (Islamic Law)," and did not answer questions about the judicial process. According to HRW, after it approached a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Justice in 2008 to define the crime of witchcraft and its associated evidence, "the official confirmed that no legal definition exists and could not clarify what evidence has probative value in witchcraft trials. Saudi Arabia has no penal code and in almost all cases gives judges the discretion to define acts they deem criminal and to set attendant punishments." HRW responded by saying that "Saudi judges should overturn witchcraft convictions and free those arrested or convicted for witchcraft-related crimes. King Abdullah should urgently order the codification of Saudi criminal laws and ensure it comports with international human rights standards." Whitson elaborated that HRW "are documenting the cases brought against people on these absurd grounds, seeking media attention to the disturbing practice, and urging the Saudi government to rein in its judges and pass a new penal code that defines once and for all what constitutes a crime in Saudi Arabia." Wajeha Al-Huwaidar, a Saudi rights activist and a member of HRW's advisory committee said it seemed as though the Saudis were living in the Dark Ages. "Witchcraft was considered a big crime [in the past] and many people got burned alive or tortured to death for practicing witchcraft," she told The Media Line. "In the Saudi case, witchcraft has deep roots in the Islamic religion. Most Saudis believe that those who have this "magic" power are able to destroy families and cause diseases to others and even death," she elaborated. "These beliefs made people feel witchcraft was a horrible crime and whoever committed it should be locked out or killed. Witchcraft is a common practice among ignorant and poor people all over the Islamic world but only Saudi Arabia punishes them in a very brutal way."