A leading human rights group appealed to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah on Thursday to stop the execution of a woman accused of witchcraft and performing supernatural acts.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the kingdom's religious police who arrested and interrogated Fawza Falih, and the judges who tried her in the northern town of Quraiyat never gave her the opportunity to prove her innocence in the face of "absurd charges that have no basis in law."
Falih's case underscores shortcomings in Saudi Arabia's Islamic legal system in which rules of evidence are shaky, lawyers are not always present and sentences often depend on the whim of judges.
The most frequent victims are women, who already suffer severe restrictions on daily life in Saudi Arabia: They cannot drive, appear before a judge without a male representative, or travel abroad without a male guardian's permission.
Witchcraft is considered an offense against Islam in the conservative kingdom. In Falih's case, the judges relied on a coerced confession and on the statements of witnesses who said she had "bewitched" them to convict her in April 2006, according to the group. Falih later retracted her confession in court, claiming it was extracted under duress, and said that as an illiterate woman, she did not understand the document she was forced to fingerprint.
"The fact that Saudi judges still conduct trials for unprovable crimes like 'witchcraft' underscores their inability to carry out objective criminal investigations," said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Fawza Falih's case is an example of how the authorities failed to comply even with existing safeguards in the Saudi justice system," he added.
There was no immediate comment on the statement from Saudi Arabia, where government offices are closed on Thursdays, the start of the Muslim weekend.
The Saudi court cited an instance in which a man allegedly became impotent after being bewitched by Falih, the rights group said.
An appeals court ruled in September 2006 that Falih could not be sentenced to death for witchcraft because she had retracted her confession. But a lower court subsequently reissued the death sentence for the benefit of "public interest" and to "protect the creed, souls and property of this country," the group's statement said.
HRW statement came a day after Yakin Erturk, the U.N. special investigator for violence against women, wrapped up a 10-day visit to Saudi Arabia during which she highlighted another controversial case that has attracted international criticism. Ertuk met with Fatima and Mansour al-Timani, who were forcibly divorced by the wife's family on grounds she had married someone from a lesser tribe. The couple learned of the divorce on Feb. 25, 2006, when police knocked on their door to serve Mansour the divorce papers. At a news conference on Wednesday, Erturk said she met the wife and husband who were in a "terrible state of mind" and that Saudi officials had promised her arrangements would be made for the couple's reunion, according to Saudi newspaper Arab News.
By: Donna Abu-Nasr
14 February 2008
Source: AP News and
Human Rights Watch: Saudi Arabia: Halt Woman’s Execution for ‘Witchcraft’:
SIGN A PETITION CALLING FOR THE IMMEDIATE PARDON AND RELEASE OF FAWZA FALIH:
Fawza Falih’s Case Reveals Deep Flaws in Saudi Justice System
(New York, February 14, 2008) – King Abdullah should halt the execution of Fawza Falih and void her conviction for “witchcraft,” Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the Saudi king.
The religious police who arrested and interrogated Fawza Falih and the judges who tried her in the northern town of Quraiyat never gave her the opportunity to prove her innocence against absurd charges that have no basis in law.
“The fact that Saudi judges still conduct trials for unprovable crimes like ‘witchcraft’ underscores their inability to carry out objective criminal investigations,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Fawza Falih’s case is an example of how the authorities failed to comply even with existing safeguards in the Saudi justice system.”
The judges relied on Fawza Falih’s coerced confession and on the statements of witnesses who said she had “bewitched” them to convict her in April 2006. She retracted her confession in court, claiming it was extracted under duress, and that as an illiterate woman she did not understand the document she was forced to fingerprint. She also stated in her appeal that her interrogators beat her during her 35 days in detention at the hands of the religious police. At one point, she had to be hospitalized as a result of the beatings.
The judges never investigated whether her confession was voluntary or reliable or investigated her allegations of torture. They never even made an inquiry as to whether she could have been responsible for allegedly supernatural occurrences, such as the sudden impotence of a man she is said to have “bewitched.” They also broke Saudi law in multiple instances, ignoring legal rules on proper procedures in a trial.
The judges did not sit as a panel of three, as required for cases involving the death penalty. They excluded Fawza Falih from most trial sessions and banned a relative who was acting as her legal representative from attending any session. Earlier, her interrogators blocked her access to a lawyer and the judges, and denied her the right to professional legal representation, thus depriving her of the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses against her. She claims that some of the witnesses were unknown to her and that others had made statements against her only as a result of beatings.
Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code, and “witchcraft” is not a defined crime. The Law of Criminal Procedure of 2002 grants defendants the right to be tried in person, to have a lawyer present during interrogation and trial, and to cross-examine any prosecution witnesses. The law obliges law enforcement officers to treat detainees humanely.
An appeals court ruled in September 2006 that Fawza Falih could not be sentenced to death for “witchcraft” as a crime against God because she had retracted her confession. The lower court judges then sentenced her to death on a “discretionary” basis, for the benefit of “public interest” and to “protect the creed, souls and property of this country.”
“The judges’ behavior in Fawza Falih’s trial shows they were interested in anything but a quest for the truth,” Stork said. “They completely disregarded legal guarantees that would have demonstrated how ill-founded this whole case was.”
On November 2, Saudi Arabia executed Mustafa Ibrahim for sorcery in Riyadh. Ibrahim, an Egyptian working as a pharmacist in the northern town of `Ar’ar, was found guilty of having tried “through sorcery” to separate a married couple, according to a Ministry of Interior statement.
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