The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the kingdom’s religious police, which 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”.
The judges relied on Falih’s coerced confession and on the statements of witnesses who said she had “bewitched” them to convict her in April 2006, according to HRW.
Witchcraft is considered an offence against Islam in the conservative kingdom.
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.
The rights statement said that the judges in the court of Quraiyat failed to define witchcraft, instead citing a variety of Falih’s alleged actions, intentions and witchcraft tools “in a weak attempt to suggest that ‘witchcraft’ had indeed taken place”.
The Saudi court cited one instance in which a man allegedly became impotent after being bewitched by Falih, and another, when a divorced woman reportedly returned to her ex-husband during the month predicted by the witch who allegedly cast a spell, HRW said.
An appeals court ruled in September 2006 that Falih could not be sentenced to death for witchcraft as a crime against God, because she had retracted her confession. After that, the lower court judges re-sentenced her to death on the court’s “discretionary” basis, for the benefit of “public interest” and to “protect the creed, souls and property of this country,” the HRW statement said.
“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.”
The statement did not mention Falih’s nationality but said she has relatives in Jordan.
Falih’s case is one of several cases to trigger criticism of the Saudi legal system.
Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code that spells out the elements of a particular crime. The Law of Criminal Procedure issued in 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.
But in practice, lawyers are often banned from courtrooms, rules of evidence are shaky and sentences often depend on the whim of judges.
The most frequent - and recently, most high-profile - victims of such whimsical rulings are women, who already suffer severe restrictions in their daily life in Saudi Arabia. Women there cannot drive, appear before a judge without a male representative or travel abroad without a male guardian’s permission.
The HRW statement came a day after Yakin Erturk, the UN 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 separately met with Fatima and Mansour Al Timani, who were forcibly divorced by the wife’s family on grounds that the wife, Fatima, had married someone from a lesser tribe.
The couple learned of the divorce on February 25, 2006, when police knocked on their door to serve Mansour the divorce papers saying his marriage had been annulled nine months earlier. Fatima now lives at a government shelter in the Eastern Province with the couple’s son while Mansour and the couple’s daughter live in the capital, Riyadh.
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. (AP)
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