Saudi Arabia ‘sorcery’ death sentence upheld

Amnesty International has called on the King of Saudi Arabia to halt the execution of a Lebanese national, whose death sentence for charges relating to “sorcery” was upheld by a court last week.

If the higher courts reject his appeal, ‘Ali Hussain Sibat, a former television presenter for a Lebanese satellite TV station, who gave advice and predictions about the future, could be executed at any time.

Another unidentified man sentenced to death for “apostasy” in July 2009 by a court in Hail on grounds relating to “sorcery” may also still be at risk of execution.

‘Ali Hussain Sibat was arrested by the Mutawa’een (religious police) on charges of “sorcery” in May 2008 while he was in Saudi Arabia to perform a form of Muslim pilgrimage, the ‘umra.

His lawyer in Lebanon believes that ‘Ali Hussain Sibat was arrested because members of the Mutawa’een had recognized him from the show, which was broadcast on the Sheherazade TV station.

After he was arrested, ‘Ali Hussain Sibat’s interrogators told him to write down what he did for a living, reassuring him that, if he did so, he would be allowed to go home after a few weeks.

This document was presented in court as a “confession” and used to convict him.

He was sentenced to death by a court in Madina on 9 November 2009 after secret court hearings where he had no legal representation or assistance.

In January 2010, the Court of Appeal in Makkah accepted an appeal against ‘Ali Hussain Sibat’s death sentence, on grounds that it was a premature verdict.

The Court of Appeal said that all allegations made against ‘Ali Hussain Sibat had to be verified, and that if he had really committed the crime he should be asked to repent.

But on March 10, a court in Madina upheld the death sentence. The judges said that he deserved to be sentenced to death because he had practised “sorcery” publicly for several years before millions of viewers and that his actions “made him an infidel”.

The court said also that there would be no way to verify that his repentance, if he should repent, would be sincere and that imposing the death sentence would deter other people from engaging in “sorcery” at a time when, the court said, there is an increase in the number of “foreign magicians” entering Saudi Arabia.

The case has been sent back to the Court of Appeal in Makkah for approval of the death sentence.

The crime of “sorcery” is not defined in Saudi Arabian law but is used to punish people for the legitimate exercise of their human rights, including the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, belief and expression.

The criminalization of apostasy is incompatible with the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Saudi Arabian authorities arrested scores of people for “sorcery” in 2009, and have continued to arrest people on the same charges this year.

The last known execution for “sorcery” was that of Egyptian national Mustafa Ibrahim, on 2 November 2007. He had been arrested in May 2007 in the town of Arar, where he worked as a pharmacist, and accused of “apostasy” for having degraded a copy of the Qur’an.

At least 158 people were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2007 and at least 102 in 2008. In 2009, 69 people are known to have been executed, including almost 20 foreign nationals. Since the beginning of 2010, at least eight people have been executed.

Amnesty International called on the authorities to release ‘Ali Hussain Sibat and the other unidentified man immediately and unconditionally if they have been convicted solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

The organization urged the authorities to desist from charging and convicting people for “apostasy” as it violates the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.