MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Saudi Arabia has handed down a death sentence to the host of a TV show that's seen across the Middle East. On his show, the host, a Lebanese man, gave callers advice and sometimes predicted the future. Now he's charged with sorcery. Human rights groups say they are seeing more and more cases against sorcery in Saudi Arabia. Kelly McEvers reports from Riyadh.
KELLY MCEVERS: The camera comes in close on Ali Hussain Sibat's bearded face. On his popular call in TV show broadcast in Arabic around the Middle East, he's framed by a painting of a sunrise.
(Soundbite of TV show)
Mr. ALI HUSSAIN SIBAT (Host): (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: You and your husband are fighting for no reason, he tells a caller. You're nervous. Read this passage from the Koran and you'll feel better. Sometime after the show was broadcast, Sibat traveled here to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. His lawyer, May al-Khansa, says Saudi religious police recognized Sibat from his TV work and arrested him.
Ms. MAY AL-KHANSA (Lawyer): They took him to prison and after that they took him to the court many times, asking him, you have to say that you have done something against religion and after that we will release you and take you to your country.
MCEVERS: Sibat confessed that he consulted spirits to predict the future, but authorities didn't release him. Instead, they brought him to a TV studio and told him to confess again. The conversation was broadcast on a Saudi program about religion.
(Soundbite of TV show)
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: How do you rate yourself among magicians, the interviewer asks. What, says a much thinner and clearly nervous Sibat. I have failed, he eventually says. I confess in front of God. Sibat was then tried in court and this confession was used against him. Last month he was sentenced to death. Saudi justice officials would not respond to several requests for comment about his case. They do say they have the right to arrest Saudis and non-Saudis, Muslims and non-Muslims on sorcery charges.
In recent months, a Saudi man was arrested for smuggling a book about witchcraft into the country. An Asian man was accused of using his powers to solve marital disputes. And the third unidentified man was given a death sentence for trying to learn magic. In 2007, Saudi authorities executed an Egyptian pharmacist for sorcery.
Sarah Leah Whitson is the Middle East director at New York-based Human Rights Watch. She 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 judge's own personal training in Sharia Islamic law. Because of this, Whitson says, anyone could be targeted.
Ms. SARAH LEAH WHITSON (Middle East Director, New York-based Human Rights Watch): You will never know on any given day whether the book you're reading or the words you're saying are going to be interpreted or used against you deliberately as a form of witchcraft.
MCEVERS: Belief in genies, or jinn, as they're called in Arabic, is actually quite common here. But the strict form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia forbids people from worshiping anyone other than God. The religious police headquarters here in the capital has an entire department devoted to combating sorcery and witchcraft and regularly distributes pamphlets and DVDs like this one set to prayer music which shows religious police searching people's homes for signs that they practice witchcraft.
(Soundbite of prayer)
Unidentified Man #2: (Praying in foreign language)
MCEVERS: Saudi political analyst Tawfiq al-Saif says religious authorities truly believe they're helping society by discouraging faith in the supernatural. But, he says, there's also a political reason to the recent rise in sorcery cases. In the last 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 known as the Hey'a.
Mr. TAWFIQ AL-SAIF (Political Analyst, Saudi Arabia): One time I met the head of the Hey'a, 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.
MCEVERS: But now that they're under pressure, al-Saif says, the Hey'a are trying to flex their muscles in the few ways that they still can, like looking for people who practice magic or don't pray five times a day, or women who don't properly cover their hair. Al-Saif says it's fine for the religious establishment to encourage good behavior, but it's not fine for them to use the criminal justice system to punish those who go astray.
For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Riyadh.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.