Saturday, February 16, 2008

Execution expected after a witch-trial in Saudi Arabia

This would be absurdly funny if a human life was not at stake. Saudi Arabia is planning to execute a woman for practicing witchcraft. She appears to have run out of legal options and now the only hope is an intervention by King Abdullah. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has directly appealed to the King for stopping this execution:
The court in Quraiyat, on April 2, 2006 (3/3/1427), sentenced her to death by beheading for the alleged crimes of ““witchcraft, recourse to jinn [supernatural beings], and slaughter” of animals.

Your Highness, the conviction of Fawza Falih for “witchcraft” is a travesty of justice and reveals severe shortcomings in Saudi Arabia’s justice system. The crime of “witchcraft” is not defined by law; judges breached safeguards for a fair trial in existing Saudi law; and there were significant procedural flaws throughout the trial which effectively eradicated her ability to defend herself against the ill-defined charges against her.
So how did the court decide that this is indeed a solid case of "witchcraft"? And you would assume, that since its practice results in capital punishment (!!!), the court would have an ironclad case for proving witchcraft (and in doing so, they may also win James Randi's million dollar award for proving paranormal activity beyond a reasonable doubt). According to the HRW letter:
First, it is not clear what the actual elements if any of the crime of “witchcraft” are, and the offence is not defined in Saudi law. As you know, Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code that spells out the elements of a given crime. The accusation of witchcraft appears to have been based upon a broad, vague concept, which cannot be said to constitute “law”. Under international human rights law, persons suspected of crimes may only be charged with offenses as established by law, and which are sufficiently clear so that everyone has the possibility to understand clearly what behavior it is that will cause them to violate that law.

Furthermore, in addition to the lack of a clear definition of “witchcraft” in Saudi law and the absence of a written penal code in which to search for such a definition, the judges in the court of Quraiyat did not define the meaning of “witchcraft”, but instead cited a variety of alleged actions, stated intentions, and “tools” for “witchcraft” in a weak attempt to suggest that “witchcraft” had indeed taken place. The court cited one instance in which a man allegedly became impotent after being “bewitched.” In another, a divorced woman reportedly returned to her ex-husband during the month predicted by the witch said to have cast the spell. The court failed to probe alternative explanations for these developments which appear to be ordinary phenomena. Indeed drawing on the illustrations cited by the courts, it is evident that the practice of “witchcraft”, if it exists, is by its nature impossible to prove, since it involves the alleged use of supernatural powers.
Even medieval witch trials required more evidence than what is being used in 21st century Saudi Arabia (for more, here is a wikipedia entry on witch trials).

Fawza Falih is illiterate and the religious police first beat her and then forced to have her fingerprint on a false confession (without even reading it to her). An appeals court halted her execution, but later Saudi court decided that she should be put to death to “protect the creed, souls and property of this country”. (WTF ??!)

Read her full story here. I'm glad that Saudi Arabia's creed will be protected by this execution. But what creed are they exactly talking about? Lets seriously hope that some sanity prevails and King Abdullah halts this absurd execution. But it should be clear that this would not count as any favor or kindness on his part. Decency and any shred of humanity would demand at least this minimum action. in case you are wondering when was the last time the King intervened with the country's courts - just this past December (from Times online):
The last time he issued such a pardon was in December, for an 18-year-old girl from Qatif who was sentenced to lashes after she was gang-raped.

Her sentence was reversed in response to a chorus of international protest, which included rare criticism from Washington, Saudi Arabia’s long-time ally.

Dear King Abdullah:
As you can clearly see, several components of your judicial system are simply repulsive. After this pardon, please revamp the system so it is no longer a stain on human decency and a blatant assault on logic & human reasoning.

sincerely,
The rest of the world.

Update: And here is a CNN report on the case: