A Lebanese man who hosted a popular TV show where he gave callers advice and sometimes predicted the future was sentenced to death by a court in Saudi Arabia last month. His charge? Sorcery.
Ali Hussain Sibat's popular call-in show was broadcast on a satellite TV channel in Arabic around the Middle East from Beirut. In May 2008, Sibat traveled to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. His lawyer, May al-Khansa, says Saudi religious police recognized Sibat from his TV work and arrested him.
"They took him to prison," Khansa says, "and after that they took him to the court many times, asking him, you have to say that you have done something against religion, and after that we will release you and take you to your country."
Sibat confessed to Saudi authorities that he consulted spirits to predict the future. But the authorities didn't release him. Instead, they brought him to a TV studio and told him to confess again. The conversation was broadcast on a Saudi program about religion.
"How do you rate yourself among magicians?" an interviewer asked Sibat.
"What?" said Sibat, clearly nervous. "I have failed. I confess in front of God."
Sibat was then tried in court, and the confession was used against him. He was sentenced to death on Nov. 9. Saudi justice officials would not respond to several requests for comment about his case.
What a shameful act by Saudi authorities. Now, Europe has its own shameful history with witchcraft - especially in early-modern period. There are estimates that tens of thousands of people (predominantly women) were killed on charges of witchcraft between 15th and 17th centuries. There were myriads of reasons but a lot had to do with a society uncomfortable with changing times and looking for someone to blame. Women, especially widowed women, were an easy target. Saudi Arabia is facing its own problems with adjustments to the modern world. But there is simply no excuse of these barbaric acts in the 21st century. Here are some recent sorcery cases in Saudi Arabia (from The Jerusalem Post):
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."
Here is another case (from Human Rights Watch):
In another case, a Jeddah criminal court on October 8, 2006 convicted Eritrean national Muhammad Burhan for "charlatanry," based on a leather-bound personal phone booklet belonging to Burhan with writings in the Tigrinya alphabet used in Eritrea. Prosecutors classified the booklet as a "talisman" and the court accepted that as evidence, sentencing him to 20 months in prison and 300 lashes. No further evidence for the charge was introduced at trial. Burhan has since been deported, after serving more than double the time in prison to which the court had sentenced him.
Lets hope this idiocy stops soon.