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)
ALI HUSSAIN SIBAT: (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.
MAY AL: 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: Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)
MCEVERS: 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.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: 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: Unidentified Man #2: (Praying in foreign language)
(SOUNDBITE OF PRAYER)
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.
TAWFIQ AL: 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: For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Riyadh.
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