07 April 2011

The Fate of Saudi Witch, Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali (Updated)

In 2006, Human Rights Watch (HRW) petitioned King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to halt the execution by beheading of a witch who was convicted a year earlier of "witchcraft, recourse to jinns [supernatural beings], and slaughter of animals". Despite a world-wide outcry (and a great deal of ridicule), Fawza Falih languished for years in Quraiyat Prison, having exhausted her appeals against the sentence. The illiterate defendant had been arrested back in 2005, and allegedly beaten and obliged to fingerprint a confession that she couldn't read.

According to the petition by Human Rights Watch,

the court of did not define the meaning of “witchcraft”, but instead cited a variety of alleged actions, stated intentions, and “tools” for “witchcraft” in a weak attempt to suggest that “witchcraft” had indeed taken place. The court cited one instance in which a man allegedly became impotent after being “bewitched.” In another, a divorced woman reportedly returned to her ex-husband during the month predicted by the witch said to have cast the spell. The court failed to probe alternative explanations for these developments which appear to be ordinary phenomena.
Following Fawza Falih's conviction in April 2006, an appeals court ruled that she could not be sentenced to death for 'witchcraft as a crime against God' because she had retracted her confession. However, 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.'

After that, nothing more was heard of her fate and the international media -- as is their wont -- lost interest.*   If someone's life wasn't at stake, we would just laugh at this happening in this day and age, and move on.  But silliness and sneers aren't really appropriate when someone is threatened with beheading.

A little background to the case.

Islamic Witchcraft

There is much in the Qur'an to suggest a mystical and occult world of unseen spirits (the jinn, or genies), the 'Evil Eye' and other powerful sinister forces.  Throughout the Middle East, one popular Quranic verse carried as a talisman to ward off the jinn and witches and conjurers, reads: 

I take refuge in the Lord of the Daybreak, from the evil he has created, from the evil of the darkness as it spreads, from the evil of those who blow on knots, and from the evil of the envious.
The evil eye, the conjurers who blow on knots, a dark, mystical place of black magic from which only God provides refuge.  

With the help of Saudi judges, of course.

The Crime of Witchcraft

The learned judges had to ask themselves whether the woman had committed a scriptural crime (the hadd), or what are known as 'discretionary' crimes.  Scriptural crimes are specifically linked to Holy Text: that would make witchcraft a form of apostasy, which carries a sentence of death.  Discretionary crimes are those that are close to the scriptural crimes in nature but, strictly speaking, are outside their parameters.  In that case, witchcraft isn't quite apostasy (meaning, she wasn't necessarily denying Islam by being a witch), so her punishment would be up to the judge's discretion; hence the term and hence the problem: discretionary crimes by their nature are uncertain as to precise contours. 

In Fawza Falih's first trial, the judges ruled that she had committed a scriptural crime, a hadd: that is the apostasy one which carries a sentence of death.  When her confession was retracted, however, the appeal judges no longer had scriptural proof, which requires two witnesses or a confession.  The judges in the lower court then employed the discretionary principle and decided that witchery was close enough to apostasy (a man was impotent and a divorced woman went back to her husband; what more proof could you need than that!)and therefore it was a discretionary crime for which death was the right punishment.

What could be fairer?

Fast Forward from the Middle Ages to 2011

On the 4th of April 2011, Arab News  reported that 30 officers of the religious police -- known to their many fans as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Hai'i -- had just completed a training session (left) in the Eastern Province city of Al-Alsa on how to deal with cases of black magic.  The officers were justifiably on a roll:

The Commission has achieved remarkable success in combating black magic in various parts of the country. It has set up nine specialized centers in the main cities to deal with black magicians.

They had their work cut out for them, too.  It was reported that just a single centre had dealt with 586 sorcery cases in 2010 -- which shows the enormity of the problem.  With so many witches running about, the Riyadh governorate launched a campaign against evil magicians and those who illegally treat people by reading from the Qur’an.

Illegally reading from the Qur'an? 

Yes indeed.  It seems that only qualified Saudis are allowed to practice Qur’anic treatment methods.  Expatriates practising such treatments, the Commission warned, would be caught and deported. 

Lucky expats: at least, not beheaded.

Just a few days after their training session, the religious police of Al-Alsa bagged their first quarry: they arrested a sorcerer who dealt in magic and provided services to several men and women, who turned to him out of a lack of religious motivation and ignorance.  They had hardly pulled in this fiend when two more witches were arrested in the same city, 

being accused of leaving egg and salt on an acquaintance’s doorstep in an attempt to put a spell on him.  The 21-year-old accuser informed the police who took the pair into custody and handed over the case to the Commission for Investigation and Prosecution to proceed with inquiries.
Needless to say, with two such cases within as many days, witchery became the talk of the town. 

Nailing Witches

So we are relieved to learn from the Saudi Gazette that Sheikh Adel Faqih, director of the Hai’a branch of sorcery in Riyadh (the capital), is an expert in black magic matters.  He was able to tell us how the Hai'i worked in such cases:

We deal with sorcerers in a special way. No one should think that we mention the name of whomever files a report about sorcery. We protect the identity of informants. We merely receive the information and thank the individual for his help without involving him in any kind of confrontation.
Sheikh Faqih said that they do not arrest a sorcerer simply because someone has filed a report against him.  Of course not!  Proper procedures must be followed.  Investigations have to be made and information collected before an arrest can be made. 

They scrupulously follow up all clues.

Sheikh Faqih explained that a sorcerer can be identified when he asks for the name of a patient and for the name of the patient’s mother or if he is seeking to buy an animal with certain features. He can also be identified if he asks for a sheep to be killed without mentioning Allah’s name and asks to stain the body with the animal’s blood or if he asks for similar unusual things.  
You couldn't make this up; could you? 

And the Fate of Fawza Falih?

Did anyone over the years say, "Don't be silly. Lots of men are impotent and women go back to their divorced spouses for reasons other than spells."

No.  They didn't.

And King Abdullah?  You may remember he was asked to reprieve her.  Did he?  No, apparently not.  At the end of 2009, she was still on Death Row at Quraiyat Prison.

But at least she hadn't been beheaded.  No, they merely left her to rot.

HRW did not make the news public but what happened was this:

Fawza Falih died in prison early last year, choking on her meal as her health had greatly deteriorated during her imprisonment.**

I don't suppose her guards "blew on the knot" and simply strangled her.  That wouldn't be proper procedure at all. 

It makes me sick.

R.I.P. Fawza Falih, Saudi witch.

*  Zenobia's first report on the Saudi witch was on 15 February 2008, updated on 15 March 2008.  Thereafter, despite frequent searches for more information, there was no news until late 2009 (see below) ... and silence until this week.

** Their last report of her was on 24 November 2009, to wit: "Minister of Justice Abdullah Al al-Shaikh responded that Human Rights Watch had a preconceived Western notion of shari'a, but did not answer the organization's questions about Falih's arbitrary arrest, coerced confession, unfair trial, and wrongful conviction. She remains on death row in Quraiyat prison, close to the border with Jordan, and is reportedly in bad health."  As Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director, then said:
"Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police...The crime of ‘witchcraft' is being used against all sorts of behavior, with the cruel threat of state-sanctioned executions."
I am grateful to Ms Whitson for finally getting me the information as to Fawza Falih's fate, and to Christoph Wilcke, HRW researcher for Saudi Arabia, who sent me the sad news.

I have made much use of Haider Ala Hamaoudi's discussion of the Saudi Witch case on his blog,Islamic Law in Our Times (or Foam From a Camel's Mouth, Spewing and Subsiding). 

Updated 7 May 2011: Islamic sorcery is (almost) a gender free-fire zone.

Off with the heads of male witches, too! 

And so, according to the Guardian newspaper, this is the hot story from Iran:

President Ahmadinejad allies charged with sorcery

Because it isn't enough that you attack your political opponents. No, they must be destroyed as god's apostates.

Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Esfandiar Rahim MashaeiMahmoud Ahmadinejad's closest allies have been accused of using supernatural powers to further his policies amid an increasingly bitter power struggle between him and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
 Several people said to be close to the president and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have been arrested in recent days and charged with being "magicians" and invoking djinns (spirits).
Sound familiar? It's those footloose djinns again.
Ayandeh, an Iranian news website, described one of the arrested men, Abbas Ghaffari, as "a man with special skills in metaphysics and connections with the unknown worlds".

Metaphysics, huh? 

That sounds serious.  But, then again, it couldn't happen to nicer people; could it?


No photograph of Fawza Falih exists, as far as I know. I've had to make do with other images.

Upper left: Photograph via Bare Naked Islam.

Upper middle left: A 75-year-old Syrian woman sentenced to 40 lashes, four months imprisonment and deportation from the kingdom for having two unrelated men in her house.  Photograph via Jihadwatch.

Lower middle left: photograph of training session from Arab News via The Memri blog .

Lowest left: Photograph from 'Save the Women' blog. 

1 comment:

  1. This is absolutely horrible but what's even sadder is that the world media is either ignorant or not very interested. What really infuriates me is that Saudi Arabia is on the UN commission for human rights! Now, is that a travesty or what! Of course, they aren't the only country shackling women and retreating to the middle ages.


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