Quietly awaiting execution

Saudi Arabia isn't high on anybody's list for a religious freedom award. But last year there were some hopeful signs for religious liberty advocates when the king dismissed the chief of the religious police and a cleric who had condoned killing owners of television networks that broadcast immoral content. He had also appointed a female deputy minister and changed the makeup of a body of religious scholars -- who issue fatwas -- to give more moderate Sunnis representation. Many problems remain. Late last year news came out of the kingdom that a popular TV host from Lebanon had been convicted of "sorcery" for fortune telling. Last week his sentence -- death -- was upheld. I thought I would wait and look at the coverage but the only mainstream story I've seen is from CNN:

Amnesty International is calling on Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to stop the execution of a Lebanese man sentenced to death for "sorcery."

In a statement released Thursday, the international rights group condemned the verdict and demanded the immediate release of Ali Hussain Sibat, former host of a popular call-in show that aired on Sheherazade, a Beirut based satellite TV channel.

It's fine as far as it goes but it doesn't tell us anything about the religious reasoning behind the decision. Still, it's the only story I saw in recent days and at least CNN is drawing attention to the planned execution.

A much better story came out a few months ago when the ruling was first issued. It was broadcast on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and is chock full of details. We learn why Sibat was in Saudi Arabia (he'd been on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in May 2008), some of what his conditions in prison have been like (promises he'd be released if he confessed) and context (cases against witchcraft and magic are on the rise).

The story says that belief in jinn (genies) is common. Here are a few more details:

Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the problem is that Saudi Arabia has no specific law governing such crimes.

Instead, judges view people who believe in the supernatural as heretics and often sentence them according to the judges' own personal training in Sharia, or Islamic law. Whitson says this means anyone could be targeted.

"You will never know on any given day whether the book you are reading or the words you are saying are going to be interpreted or used against you deliberately as a form of witchcraft," Whitson says.

It might be nice to have a clarification about what the dividing line is between acceptable supernatural beliefs and unacceptable supernatural beliefs. But here's some helpful info on why the religious police may be cracking down:

In the past few years, the government has tried to curb the influence of the religious establishment by sacking key religious figures, pushing for reform in the courts and criticizing the religious police.

"One time, I met the head of the Hey'a [the religious police] and he was really sorry because in the past he was saying that they were free to do whatever they like to enforce the Sharia laws -- even, he said, in the public buses, in the train, in the airports," Saif says.

But now that they are under pressure, the religious police are trying to flex their muscles in the few ways they still can, including looking for people who practice magic or who don't pray five times a day, and for women who don't properly cover their hair, Saif says.

There's much more I would have liked to have seen in coverage of this topic. What is the religious basis for opposition to sorcery and witchcraft? What is the authority for the opposition? What is Lebanon doing to help out its citizen? Are there any diplomatic measures being taken by Lebanon or other countries? Unfortunately the coverage just isn't there.

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