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Witchcraft and the Death Penalty in Saudi Arabia
Leo Igwe   May 11, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Recently, a Sri Lankan woman was arrested by Saudi authorities for witchcraft.  A man accused this woman of casting a spell on a 13 year old girl during a family shopping trip. He complained to the police that the girl ‘started acting in an abnormal way’ after a close contact with the woman in a shopping mall in the port city of Jeddah. According to news reports, the accused woman is currently in police custody in Saudi Arabia. If pressure is not brought on Saudi authorities to spare the life of this ‘innocent’ woman, she may be executed by beheading any moment from now.

In Saudi Arabia, witchcraft is a crime punishable by death. Last year, Saudi authorities beheaded two people, a Sudanese man and a Saudi woman, for practicing witchcraft. It is not clear how the judicial system in the country defines the crime of witchcraft or justifies it as a harmful practice punishable by death. It is difficult to understand how Saudi courts try and convict people for witchcraft offense.

Definitely such procedures fall short of international standards. I am so eager to know on what ground the government of Saudi Arabia continues to allow the execution of persons who allegedly committed the ‘crime’. I understand that Saudi Arabia has no written criminal code, so there is nothing like the ‘letter of the law’ in terms of witchcraft crime. Rulings are based on the judges’ interpretation of sharia law. Judgments are issued based on the faith, beliefs and mentality of judges.

Witchcraft is an imaginary crime that should not be associated with the penal code of any country in this 21st century. There is no evidence at all that some people have supernatural powers and can harm others by magical means. Witchcraft is a belief which people, out of fear and ignorance, associate with harm, evil and misfortune, and the criminal offense of witchcraft is a painful legacy of this primitive and lingering fear and superstition. It beats my imagination that a country like Saudi Arabia still recognizes witchcraft as a crime, and in fact goes to the extent of beheading people for committing the ‘offense’. I am literally stunned by the criminal silence of states and the international community over the terror of witch hunting in places like Saudi Arabia.

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. Saudi Arabia should follow sooth without delay.

Meanwhile, in this case, the burden of proof lies with the accuser - the man - who should actually be arrested and be made to convince the court, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the abnormal behavior of the girl was as a result of a spell - and in this case the woman’s spell and not something else. In fact it is the man, not the Sri Lankan woman, who has a case to answer.

This case actually presents the Saudi authorities with an opportunity to come out with a landmark judgment and bring an end to the scourge of witch hunting in the country. But will Saudi Arabia seize this opportunity?

Anyone who is acquainted with the legal history of Europe knows that the region went through this process which led the continent to end witch hunting and removed witchcraft from its criminal code.

Saudi Arabia should learn from the ‘dark’ history of Europe and stop wasting its judicial resources by trying and entertaining witchcraft criminal cases. The Saudi authorities should stop wasting innocent lives by beheading persons accused of committing the ‘chimeric crime’ of witchcraft.

Instead, the government should try to enlighten its citizens so that they stop associating witchcraft with any evil act or abnormal behaviour.
The government of Saudi Arabia should be told in very clears terms to spare the life of this Sri Lankan woman and end immediately the state sponsored witch hunting going on in the country. The government should put in place the necessary legal and judicial reforms to forestall this embarrassing development in the future. Incidentally many countries in Africa and around the world look up to Saudi Arabia as a model in terms of law, politics, religion and governance.  Many Islamic theocracies and republics around the world copy and imitate the legal precedents in Saudi Arabia in terms of interpreting the sharia law. What happens in Saudi Arabia has enormous impact on what goes on in many communities and countries in the world.

Stopping witch hunting in Saudi Arabia is critical to ending this violent campaign in Africa and in other parts of the globe. More so, the government of Saudi Arabia is one of the backers of democratic changes and reforms - also known as the Arab Spring - in North Africa and the Middle East. Saudi Arabia cannot be supporting progressive changes in other countries while sitting on and condoning unjust, oppressive and murderous systems at home. Saudi Arabia cannot be supporting the respect for human rights and the rule of law in other countries while denying its people - and others - the same.

Hence, I am urging the UN, EU and other relevant agencies to speak out against witch hunting in the Saudi Kingdom. The US 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 and sorcery.



Image #1: From, Sharia Awareness Action Network

Image #2: Members of Magic Movement, a group of young Bangladeshis, stage a mock execution scene in protest of Saudi Arabia beheading eight Bangladeshi workers in front of National Museum in Dhaka, October 15, 2011. (Photo: Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.

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