SAUDI ARABIA: Kingdom steps up hunt for 'witches' and 'black magicians'
When the popular 46-year-old Lebanese psychic Ali Sibat went on-air and made his predictions about the future, the phone lines of the satellite television station Sheherazade used to be flooded with calls.
But what the star psychic probably did not predict was that his claims to supernatural prowess would land him a death sentence.
"He was the most popular psychic on the channel," the Lebanese news agency Naharnet quoted Sibat’s lawyer May Khansa as saying. "The number of callers, including from all over the gulf, spiked in number when he appeared."
But while on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia last year, Sibat was spotted by religious police in the holy city of Medina. Their job it is to battle vice and uphold virtue in the ultraconservative kingdom. So they arrested Sibat in his room at the Medina Hotel on charges of sorcery.
On Nov. 9, Sibat was given a death sentence by a Mecca court for allegedly practicing witchcraft.
Sibat’s fate is common in Saudi Arabia.
Scores of alleged witch doctors, fortunetellers, and black magicians each year are dragged through the Saudi courts, including Fawza Falih, who’s been on death row since 2006 for witchcraft.Her accusers include a man who claims the 51-year-old, illiterate Falih is the reason for his impotence.
The witch hunt in the kingdom and a recent rise in witchcraft and sorcery cases are causing concern among human rights groups. News reports say at least two other people have been snatched for witchcraft only in the last month.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government Tuesday to overturn Sibat’s death sentence and all other witchcraft convictions for crimes the group says are loosely defined and used in an arbitrary way.
“Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a news release. “The crime of ‘witchcraft’ is being used against all sorts of behavior, with the cruel threat of state-sanctioned executions.”
Judging from previous witchcraft convictions in Saudi Arabia, anyone who publicly displays what authorities describe as suspicious behavior risks becoming a target of the religious police.
Take the case of Muhammad Burhan, who carried a phone booklet with writings in the Tigrinya alphabet from his native Eritrea. Perhaps it was his way of protecting himself against the evil forces out there. Maybe it was his lucky charm for a little extra success in his love life or in business.
But the booklet convinced Saudi authorities that Burhan was a black magician and charged him with "charlatanry," for which he was lashed 300 times and sentenced to 20 months behind bars. He was then deported after having served more than double the prison term he was sentenced to, according to Human Rights Watch.
Most recently, the Saudi daily Okaz carried a report on the arrest of an Asian man nabbed by the religious police in Ta’if on Nov. 19 for “sorcery” and “charlatanry.”
The man was said to have used supernatural powers to make people fall in love with him and to solve marital disputes.
This year, Saudi Arabia started implementing what it called a "comprehensive judicial reform," but it has yet to write down its criminal laws.
Human Rights Watch called on King Abdullah to order the codification of criminal laws and ensure they comply with international human rights standards.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Photo: Someone in a costume awaits the screening of a Harry Potter film in a cathedral in Gloucester, England, this year. Credit: Matt Cardy / Getty Images