SAUDI ARABIA: Factional politics may be at heart of legal dispute over psychic’s fate

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Are Saudi Arabia’s treacherous factional domestic politics behind the ongoing legal battle over its decision to execute a former Lebanese television psychic convicted of sorcery?

Ali Hossein Sabat, convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death by beheading in Saudi Arabia, received a temporary stay of execution Thursday, just one day before his sentence was to be carried out. It was the latest development in Sabat’s two-year ordeal.


Saudi Arabia is among the strictest countries in such legal matters, and any practices that could be considered ‘magic’ are punishable by death.

But there appears to be more at stake than the letter of the law. One Lebanese legal expert who is familiar with Saudi law and politics described the case against Sabat as a ‘muscle show’ by conservatives who may be seeking to embarrass reformist leaders such as King Abdullah.

‘I don’t know on what grounds they arrested him, since he didn’t commit [the crime] in Saudi, he’s not a Saudi citizen, and it wasn’t directed against Saudi, and usually one of these criteria must be fulfilled,’ the expert said, asking that her name not be published because she travels to Saudi Arabia.

Sabat was visiting Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage two years ago when he was recognized by police, arrested and convicted of sorcery. Call-in shows with psychics are hugely popular in Lebanon and many are syndicated across the Arab world, despite a ban on fortune-telling in many countries.

His sentence has galvanized human-rights activists. In Lebanon they have rallied behind Sabat, calling on politicians to take a stronger stance. On Thursday, protesters gathered in front of the Saudi embassy in Beirut where they reenacted a mock hanging to protest Sabat’s sentence.

‘[Saudis] come to our country and literally do whatever they want, thinking that Lebanon is theirs [thanks] to our dear politicians!!’ one commenter wrote on a popular online political forum. ‘What kind of country is Lebanon.... They can’t step in to stop this injustice?’ Lebanese Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar told Agence France-Presse that he had asked Saudi authorities to reconsider the severity of the sentence, adding that the same conviction in Lebanon is a misdemeanor punishable by a few months in jail.

Though Sabat’s ‘mother should rest assured’ for now, Najjar said, Sabat’s lawyer, May Khansa, told the BBC she feared the execution could merely be postponed.

‘Time is passing and if they don’t kill him this Friday, maybe next Friday,’ said Khansa.

The legal expert also speculated that Sabat, a father of five, was given the harshest sentence because he is a Shiite Muslim. Shiites are often marginalized and persecuted in Saudi Arabia, which enforces a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam.

‘The conservatives want to show everyone, ‘We are here and we’re still powerful and we can do whatever we want’,’ the expert said.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Top photo: Activists gather around a mock gallows to protest the death sentence given to a Lebanese man accused of witchcraft in Saudi Arabia. The Arabic writing on banners read:'Don’t kill.’ Credit: Bilal Hussein / AP