; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Malignant Kingdom

This post may be a bit more 'preachy' than normal but it concerns a practice that has no tangible basis for existence in our society...regardless of the particular government, customs or laws.

Witchcraft is the alleged use of supernatural or magical powers. Historically, it was widely believed that witchcraft involved the use of these powers to inflict harm upon members of a community or their property, and that all witches were in league with the devil. The classical period of witch hunts in Europe and North America occurred during the early modern period (1480 to 1750). It is estimated that 40,000 to 100,000 people were executed during this time in history. The last executions of people convicted as witches in Europe took place in the 18th century, but the practice continues in many areas of the world. Witch hunts still occur today in societies where belief in magic is practiced, predominately in Sub-Saharan Africa, North India, and Papua New Guinea.

Saudi Arabia has a strong legislation against the practice of sorcery. It is the only country in the world where witchcraft still remains legally punishable by death. In India, labeling a woman as a witch is a common ploy to grab land, settle scores or even to punish her for turning down sexual advances. In a majority of the cases, it is difficult for the accused woman to reach out for help and she is forced to either abandon her home and family or is driven to commit suicide. A 2010 estimate places the number of reported women killed as witches in India at between 150 and 200 per year. Witchcraft or sorcery remains a criminal offense in Saudi Arabia, although the precise nature of the crime is undefined and the frequency of prosecutions is unknown.

So, how do Saudi authorities prove someone is a witch? The government hasn't gone into detail, but a look at the kingdom's past witchcraft cases suggests the bar for proving someone guilty isn't very high. Witch hunting is fairly institutionalized in Saudi Arabia, with the country's religious police running an Anti-Witchcraft Unit and a sorcery hotline to combat practices like astrology and fortune telling that are considered un-Islamic.

But institutionalized is not the same thing as codified. A top official in the kingdom's Ministry of Justice told Human Rights Watch in 2008 that there is no legal definition for witchcraft (Saudi Arabia doesn't have a penal code) or specific body of evidence that has probative value in witchcraft trials.

Instead, judges have wide latitude in interpreting Sharia law and sentencing suspected criminals. And Amnesty International claims these judges use witchcraft charges to arbitrarily "punish people, generally after unfair trials, for exercising their right to freedom of speech or religion." A Human Rights Watch researcher tells The Media Line that foreigners in particular are often the targets of sorcery accusations because of their traditional practices or, occasionally, because Saudi men facing charges of sexual harassment by domestic workers want to discredit their accusers.

The evidence arrayed against witchcraft suspects typically revolves around statements from accusers and suspicious personal belongings that suggest the supernatural, in a country where superstition is still widespread. In 2006, for example, an Eritrean national was imprisoned and lashed hundreds of times for "charlatanry" after prosecutors argued that his leather-bound personal phone booklet with writings in the Tigrinya alphabet was a "talisman."

A year later, Saudi authorities beheaded an Egyptian pharmacist who had been accused by neighbors of casting spells to separate a man from his wife and placing Korans in mosque bathrooms. "He confessed to adultery with a woman and desecrating the Koran by placing it in the bathroom," the Saudi Press Agency reported, adding that books on black magic, a candle with an incantation "to summon devils," and "foul-smelling herbs" had been found in the pharmacist's home.

The cases against alleged witches also frequently involve sting operations conducted by religious police. According to Amnesty International, a Sudanese migrant named Abdul Hamid bin Hussein Moustafa al-Fakki -- executed in Medina in September for "sorcery" -- was first arrested in 2005 when an undercover agent for the religious police asked him to produce a spell that would cause the man's father to leave his second wife, which al-Fakki allegedly offered to do for $1,600. The Saudi Gazette tells a story of a female religious police agent who entrapped an elusive witch by expressing a desire for her husband to be turned into an "unquestioning obedient man."

There's evidence that the cases may involve coerced confessions and miscarriages of justice as well. Human Rights Watch chronicles the plight of an illiterate Saudi woman named Fawza Falih who was beaten, forced to fingerprint a confession that she could not read, tried without a lawyer, and sentenced to death for "witchcraft, recourse to jinn [supernatural beings], and slaughter" of animals after a man accused Falih of rendering him impotent and authorities found a "foul-smelling substance," a white robe with money inside it, and another robe hanging from a tree in or near her home.

The most prominent witchcraft case came in 2008, when a Saudi court slapped a death sentence on Ali Hussain Sibat a Lebanese national and former host of a popular call-in show that aired on satellite TV across the Middle East. On the show, he made predictions and gave advice to the audience. In May of 2008, Ali Sibat was on Umrah pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia when he was spotted by religious police in the holy city of Medina. The Saudi police had been advised of Sibat's predictions and popularity. Ali Sibat was arrested on charges of "sorcery" and sentenced to death by beheading. Sibat's fate is common in Saudi Arabia, where the execution of witches is still performed.

Sibat's story has raised an international outcry and many appeals for his life have been made. On March 10, 2010, a court in Medina upheld his death sentence. According to Amnesty International, "The judges said that he deserved to be sentenced to death because he had practiced "sorcery" publicly for several years before millions of viewers and that his actions "made him an infidel." He was scheduled for execution at the end of March, 2010, but as the date neared, widespread media coverage, appeals by international human rights groups and intervention by several Lebanese government officials postponed the event.

Sibat was freed after a protracted international campaign for his release and the intervention of high-ranking Lebanese officials. But Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser wasn't so lucky. The BBC noted that while Nasser was arrested in 2009, Amnesty International didn't hear of her case until it was too late. This BBC report on the case shows clips from Sabat's television show in Lebanon.

NOTE: There is no justification for witchcraft, sorcery or casting spell as a crime. The term, witchcraft, begs for an evidence-based definition and categorization. The crime of witchcraft does not actually refer to any action that can be concretely proven or demonstrated. Due to lack of proper definition and justiciability, enlightened societies decriminalized witchcraft. Anyone knowledgeable of the legal history of Europe and the Americas knows the processes which led to the end of witch hunting and the removal of witchcraft from the criminal code.

Simply stated, Saudi Arabia cannot support progressive changes in other countries (ex. 'Arab Spring') while sitting on their hands and condoning unjust, oppressive and murderous systems at home. Saudi Arabia cannot support the respect for human rights and the rule of law in other countries while denying its people, and visitors, the same.

The United States and other Western nations should, in spite of their strategic, economic, trade and oil interests pressure the Saudi authorities to abandon this interpretation of Sharia law being employed by local authorities to justify the arrest, prosecution and execution of persons in the name of witchcraft, superstition and sorcery...Lon

New York Post

Getting God's Ear

Beyond Rationalism: Rethinking Magic, Witchcraft and Sorcery

The Middle East and Islamic World Reader