TV Mystic Lingers in Saudi Jail
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CAIRO -- The sorcerer still has his head.
But for how long?
For more than two years, Ali Hussain Sibat of Lebanon has been held in a prison in Saudi Arabia, convicted of sorcery and sentenced to death. His head is to be chopped off by an executioner wielding a long, curved sword.
His crime: manipulating spirits, predicting the future, concocting potions and conjuring spells on a call-in television show called "The Hidden" on a Lebanese channel, Scheherazade. It was, in effect, a Middle Eastern psychic hot line.
"Sorcery is the ability to influence matters that affect people's lives through the use of spirits," said Abdulaziz AlGasim, a retired Saudi judge. "It is impossible to prove such an act except through confession, and confessions are suspect."
The authorities say that Mr. Sibat confessed.
Several times in recent months, Mr. Sibat's lawyer, his wife and his four children were told he would, any day, be escorted to a public square for his beheading. And several times, the execution was postponed after an outcry from international human rights groups and the Lebanese government.
Mr. Sibat's odyssey through the Saudi justice system began in 2008, when he traveled to the kingdom to perform what is called an umra, or a minor pilgrimage, in the holy city of Mecca. He was arrested in a sting operation staged by the religious police, men with long beards and ankle-length gowns who technically have no authority to arrest but who wield tremendous power in the conservative kingdom. He was jailed after agreeing to give a woman a potion so that her husband would divorce a second wife.
The religious police said they recorded the transaction.
Shortly after his arrest Mr. Sibat appeared on a Saudi television talk show and confessed to sorcery. "Most of my treatments were with honey and seeds," he said. "You would put the charm in the honey and drink from it." Since then, he has remained in prison, and in 2009 he was sentenced to death. His Lebanese lawyer, May el-Khansa, said that he confessed only because he was assured that if he did so he would be released. There have been some indications he will be spared by King Abdullah and let go, she said, though that remains uncertain.
"It's been two years of this mental anguish," said his wife, Samira Rahmoun, during a telephone interview from their home in the Baalbek area of Lebanon. "Two years of torture. They are killing an innocent man, and they are slowly killing a whole family."
There has been little public outcry in Saudi Arabia over the case, which is considered rather ordinary, according to political experts in the capital, Riyadh. But the international attention and criticism has cast a harsh light on the ultra-religious side of Saudi Arabia as the kingdom is working to improve its reputation, especially in the West.
The case highlights not only the popular belief in magic and sorcery -- by no means unique to Saudi Arabia -- but also a legal system that critics say operates in secret and functions with little oversight, due process or even written laws. Saudi Arabia's Constitution is the Koran. According to Amnesty International, Mr. Sibat does not even have a lawyer in Saudi Arabia. (Ms. Khansa is in Lebanon.)
"The judges think they are the interpreters of God's word, and this is the whole problem in Saudi Arabia," said Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, director of Human Rights First Society, an independent monitoring group in the kingdom. "We have enormous numbers of examples where the same case was judged radically differently between two judges."
Mr. Sibat appeared on Lebanese television earning $700 a month to answer callers' questions, offer advice, cast spells or recite incantations. The Saudi television anchor who interviewed Mr. Sibat shortly after his arrest described him as a "notorious swindler."
But fraud, while a crime, is not punishable by death, said Mr. AlGasim, the retired judge. Only actual sorcery is a crime.
"You have to differentiate between acts that cheat or deceive people for money, which deserve to be punished, and dealing with magic," he said. "There is no mechanism to prove it, and any confession is open to doubt, especially if someone confesses in prison."
First Published April 25, 2010 2:01 am