A woman is accused of sorcery and given a perfunctory trial, but is not permitted legal counsel. After being found guilty, she is summarily executed. The setting of this story is neither 12th century Spain, nor Salem, Massachusetts in the 1700's. The woman in question died this Monday in the al-Jawf province of Saudi Arabia.
According to Phillip Luther, interim director of the Middle East and North Africa for Amnesty International, "The charges of 'witchcraft and sorcery' are not defined as crimes in Saudi Arabia." Yet that did not stop the beheading of Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser, a 60-year-old woman who was executed on Monday after having been condemned on these charges. While sorcery may not be a crime on the books, the BBC writes that, "some of its conservative clerics have urged the strongest possible punishments against fortunetellers and faith healers as a threat to Islam."
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy without a comprehensive criminal code; instead, the country's judges impose a strict form of Sharia law on a case-by-case basis. Interestingly, the Saudi ministry gave no further details of the charges for which the woman was convicted. However, the London-based newspaper al-Hayat quoted a member of the Saudi religious police as saying she had tricked people into giving her money, claiming that she could cure their illnesses. According to the report, she charged up to $800 a session.
Oddly, while "witchcraft and sorcery" are not well defined criminal offenses in Saudi Arabia, fraud is. In November of 2009, a man charged with "swindling and preparing talismans to break spells" was sentenced to 2 years in prison and 500 lashes with a whip. The official charges (which the defendant is appealing) were "trickery and deception to swindle money." It is noteworthy that the prosecutor in the case wanted a stiffer sentence for "practicing magic," but the indictment under those charges failed.
Why the double standard? If Nasser was essentially using people's belief in her "cures" to swindle them, why was she not sentenced in a similar fashion to the Jeddah man, with jail time and lashes? If what she was doing was "practicing sorcery," and therefore punishable by death, why was the Jeddah defendant's prosecutor denied from pursuing a similar charge in the 2009 incident? Gender likely played a significant role.
The Saudi monarchy may be friendly to the United States, but it still uses strict fundamentalist Islam to maintain an iron-hard grip of control over its population. According to Luther, "While we don't know the details of the acts which the authorities accused Amina of committing, the charge of sorcery has often been used in Saudi Arabia to punish people, generally after unfair trials, for exercising their right to freedom of speech or religion." Many of those executed under such charges have no defense lawyer and are not informed about the legal proceedings against them.
The people being accused may not, in fact, be committing sorcery or witchcraft; as noted, faith healers can be included in the category of the condemned as well. Foreigners should not expect to find immunity to the rough sentencing of Saudi Arabian courts. Earlier this month, an Australian man was sentenced to 500 lashes and a year in prison for blasphemy while on a pilgrimage to Medina. In 2006, an Eritrean man was imprisoned and given hundreds of lashes for "charlatanry" because he couldn't convince the court that his leather-bound personal phone booklet written in the Tigrinya alphabet was not a "talisman."
Freedom is not highly regarded in the oil-rich kingdom, and its leaders have been accused of conducting a campaign of repression against protesters and reformists since the Arab Spring erupted a year ago. Saudi Arabia was one of a minority of states that voted against a UN General Assembly resolution last December calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions. In April of this year, the US State Department published a report that the Saudi government executed 67 persons in 2009 and 102 persons in 2008. So far this year, the number is 73, and there is no decades-long appeal system for the condemned to go through.
Saudi Arabia may be diplomatic and savvy enough to befriend the West, but that does not mean it has a particularly high regard for justice and basic human rights. Visitors to the kingdom are warned to be careful what sorts of religious remarks they make in public and to make sure the writing in their leather-bound personal phone books is easy to read.
Related Links: Saudi Arabia Beheads Woman For 'Sorcery' - Al Jazeera