Times (London) 2 April 2010, James Haider
A Lebanese television host who was arrested during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and sentenced to death as a sorcerer for making predictions on his TV show could be executed any day, his lawyer and rights groups said yesterday.
The sentence — roughly equivalent to Derren Brown being condemned to death for predicting the National Lottery on Channel 4 — has provoked outrage among human rights groups, who say that the death penalty for witchcraft in the kingdom is not unusual.
Ali Hussain Sibat, 46, a father of five, was arrested in May 2008 by Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the Mutaween, while on a pilgrimage to the country that boasts the holiest shrines in Islam. He was sentenced in November last year in a secret court session in Medina in which he was given no legal counsel. Amnesty International said that the sentence had apparently been handed down because he “gave advice and predictions about the future” on Lebanese television.
Mr Sibat used to make his predictions and give out advice to audience members while hosting a popular call-in show, Sheherazade, which aired on satellite TV across the Middle East. His lawyer, May el-Khansa, said that the entertainer’s legal appeal was rejected but that under Saudi law he could still be pardoned by the governor of the province in which he was judged. Amnesty has appealed to King Abdullah II, the Saudi ruler, as well as Lebanese authorities to push for the ruling to be overturned.
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“Ali Hussain Sabat appears to have been convicted solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression,” said Malcolm Smart, head of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa programme. “It is high time the Saudi Arabian Government joined the international trend towards a worldwide moratorium on executions.”
Ms el-Khansa said that she had been told by Saudi sources that Mr Sibat would be executed yesterday.
Thursday, the last day of the Saudi week, is a traditional day for beheadings in the kingdom, which observes a very strict version of Sharia, or Islamic law, and condemns to death those found guilty of murder, apostasy, armed robbery, drug trafficking, rape and witchcraft. Amnesty said it also feared that the execution was imminent.
The Lebanonese Ambassador to Riyadh, Marwan Zein, said yesterday that he had not been informed by the Saudi authorities that Mr Sibat was about to be executed. He believed that the case was still being considered by the court.
Mr Sibat was arrested, according to his lawyers, when he was performing the Umra, a minor religious pilgrimage to the holy shrines of Saudi Arabia. While in Medina, he was recognised by members of the religious police — the same force that once prevented schoolgirls escaping a burning school because their heads were uncovered — who had seen his show on television and arrested him in his hotel room.
His interrogators allegedly 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, Amnesty said.
Scores of people were detained last year for “sorcery” and others have been condemned to die, even though the crime is not defined in the kingdom’s law, Amnesty said. The rights group said that sorcery “has been 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 last known execution for sorcery was of a pharmacist who was arrested in May 2007 and accused of having degraded a copy of the Koran.
The kingdom, a close regional ally of the United States and Britain, executed at least 158 people in 2007 and a further 102 in 2008. Last year, a man convicted of raping several young boys and leaving one of his victims to die in the desert was beheaded and his body crucified in public.