FP Explainer

How Do You Prove Someone's a Witch in Saudi Arabia?

Call the religious police's Anti-Witchcraft Unit and get them to set up a sting operation.

In yet another reminder that the phrase "witch hunts" isn't only used figuratively these days, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced on Monday that it had beheaded a woman named Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser for practicing "witchcraft and sorcery." The London-based al-Hayat newspaper, citing the chief of the religious police who arrested the woman after a report from a female investigator, claims Nasser was tricking people into paying $800 per session to have their illnesses cured.

So, how did Saudi authorities prove Nasser was a witch? The government hasn't gone into detail, but a look at the kingdom's past witchcraft cases suggests the bar for proving someone guilty isn't very high. Witch hunting is fairly institutionalized in Saudi Arabia, with the country's religious police running an Anti-Witchcraft Unit and a sorcery hotline to combat practices like astrology and fortune telling that are considered un-Islamic.

But institutionalized is not the same thing as codified. A top official in the kingdom's Ministry of Justice told Human Rights Watch in 2008 that there is no legal definition for witchcraft (Saudi Arabia doesn't have a penal code) or specific body of evidence that has probative value in witchcraft trials.

Instead, judges have wide latitude in interpreting Sharia law and sentencing suspected criminals. And Amnesty International claims these judges use witchcraft charges to arbitrarily "punish people, generally after unfair trials, for exercising their right to freedom of speech or religion." A Human Rights Watch researcher tells The Media Line that foreigners in particular are often the targets of sorcery accusations because of their traditional practices or, occasionally, because Saudi men facing charges of sexual harassment by domestic workers want to discredit their accusers. 

The evidence arrayed against witchcraft suspects typically revolves around statements from accusers and suspicious personal belongings that suggest the supernatural, in a country where superstition is still widespread. In 2006, for example, an Eritrean national was imprisoned and lashed hundreds of times for "charlatanry" after prosecutors argued that his leather-bound personal phone booklet with writings in the Tigrinya alphabet was a "talisman."

A year later, Saudi authorities beheaded an Egyptian pharmacist who had been accused by neighbors of casting spells to separate a man from his wife and placing Korans in mosque bathrooms. "He confessed to adultery with a woman and desecrating the Koran by placing it in the bathroom," the Saudi Press Agency reported, adding that books on black magic, a candle with an incantation "to summon devils," and "foul-smelling herbs" had been found in the pharmacist's home.

The cases against alleged witches also frequently involve sting operations conducted by religious police. According to Amnesty International, a Sudanese migrant named Abdul Hamid bin Hussein Moustafa al-Fakki -- executed in Medina in September for "sorcery" -- was first arrested in 2005 when an undercover agent for the religious police asked him to produce a spell that would cause the man's father to leave his second wife, which al-Fakki allegedly offered to do for $1,600. The Saudi Gazette tells a story of a female religious police agent who entrapped an elusive witch by expressing a desire for her husband to be turned into an "unquestioning obedient man."

There's evidence that the cases may involve coerced confessions and miscarriages of justice as well. Human Rights Watch chronicles the plight of an illiterate Saudi woman named Fawza Falih who was beaten, forced to fingerprint a confession that she could not read, tried without a lawyer, and sentenced to death for "witchcraft, recourse to jinn [supernatural beings], and slaughter" of animals after a man accused Falih of rendering him impotent and authorities found a "foul-smelling substance," a white robe with money inside it, and another robe hanging from a tree in or near her home.

The most prominent witchcraft case came in 2008, when a Saudi court slapped a death sentence on Ali Sabat, a Lebanese television personality on a religious pilgrimage to Medina, for making psychic predictions on a Lebanon-based satellite channel (the picture above shows Lebanese human rights activists fashioning a mock gallows outside the Saudi embassy in Beirut to demand Sabat's release). Sabat's lawyer told NPR that the Saudi religious police arrested Sabat after recognizing him from television and pressured him to confess to violating Islam if he hoped to return to Lebanon (his confession landed him a beheading instead, though the Saudi Supreme Court eventually freed Sabat after ruling that his actions hadn't harmed anyone). This BBC report on the case shows clips from Sabat's television show in Lebanon:

Sabat was freed after a protracted international campaign for his release and the intervention of high-ranking Lebanese officials. But Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser wasn't so lucky. On Monday, the BBC noted that while Nasser was arrested in 2009, Amnesty International didn't hear of her case until it was too late. 

Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

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