BEIRUT, Lebanon – A leading human rights group appealed to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah on Thursday to stop the execution of a woman accused of witchcraft and performing supernatural acts.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the kingdom's religious police who arrested and interrogated Fawza Falih, and the judges who tried her in the northern town of Quraiyat never gave her the opportunity to prove her innocence in the face of "absurd charges that have no basis in law."
Falih's case underscores shortcomings in Saudi Arabia's Islamic legal system in which rules of evidence are shaky, lawyers are not always present and sentences often depend on the whim of judges.
The most frequent victims are women, who already suffer severe restrictions on daily life in Saudi Arabia: They cannot drive, appear before a judge without a male representative, or travel abroad without a male guardian's permission.
Witchcraft is considered an offense against Islam in the conservative kingdom.
In Falih's case, the judges relied on a coerced confession and on the statements of witnesses who said she had "bewitched" them to convict her in April 2006, according to the group.
Falih later retracted her confession in court, claiming it was extracted under duress, and said that as an illiterate woman, she did not understand the document she was forced to fingerprint.
"The fact that Saudi judges still conduct trials for unprovable crimes like 'witchcraft' underscores their inability to carry out objective criminal investigations," said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
There was no immediate comment on the statement from Saudi Arabia, where government offices are closed on Thursdays, the start of the Muslim weekend.
"Fawza Falih's case is an example of how the authorities failed to comply even with existing safeguards in the Saudi justice system," he added.
The Saudi court cited an instance in which a man allegedly became impotent after being bewitched by Falih, the rights group said.
An appeals court ruled in September 2006 that Falih could not be sentenced to death for witchcraft because she had retracted her confession. But a lower court subsequently reissued the death sentence for the benefit of "public interest" and to "protect the creed, souls and property of this country," the group's statement said.
HRW statement came a day after Yakin Erturk, the U.N. special investigator for violence against women, wrapped up a 10-day visit to Saudi Arabia during which she highlighted another controversial case that has attracted international criticism.
Ertuk met with Fatima and Mansour al-Timani, who were forcibly divorced by the wife's family on grounds she had married someone from a lesser tribe.
The couple learned of the divorce on Feb. 25, 2006, when police knocked on their door to serve Mansour the divorce papers.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Erturk said she met the wife and husband who were in a "terrible state of mind" and that Saudi officials had promised her arrangements would be made for the couple's reunion, according to Saudi newspaper Arab News.