RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court has refused to ratify the death sentence of a Lebanese psychic convicted of practicing witchcraft in a case that has outraged international human rights groups.
A three-judge panel said in its ruling Thursday that there was not enough evidence that Ali Sibat's actions harmed others. The judges ordered the case to be retried in a Medina court and recommended that the sentence be commuted and that Sibat be deported.
The charges in Sibat's case seem to center on a call-in talk show he hosted on a Lebanese satellite TV station where he would tell fortunes and give advice. His supporters point out that the show was aired from Lebanon, not Saudi Arabia.
He was arrested in May 2008 by the Saudi religious police during a pilgrimage to the holy city of Medina and sentenced to death in November 2009.
In Lebanon, Sibat's wife, Samira Rahmoon, welcomed the Supreme Court's decision but said she won't rest until Sibat is back home with her and their five children.
"Of course I was very happy. A house without a man is worth nothing; we are borrowing money every month just to get bread to eat," she said. "But I am still scared. Unless I see him at Beirut airport with my own eyes I will always be scared for him."
The Saudi justice system, which is based on Islamic law, does not clearly define the charge of witchcraft.
Sibat is one of scores of people reported arrested every year in the kingdom for practicing sorcery, witchcraft, black magic and fortunetelling. The deeply religious authorities in Saudi Arabia consider these practices polytheism.
According to Amnesty International, the last known execution on a witchcraft conviction was the 2007 beheading of an Egyptian pharmacist, Mustafa Ibrahim, who was found guilty of casting spells in an attempt to separate a married couple.
The charges are often vague — covering anything from fortunetelling to astrology to making charms and talismans believed to bring love, health or pregnancy. Saudi judges cite Quranic verses forbidding witchcraft, but such practices remain popular as a folk tradition.
In January, an appeals court in Mecca agreed to review Sibat's death sentence, but in March another set of judges in Medina upheld the sentence, saying he practiced sorcery publicly on a TV show and that made him an infidel.
Sibat's Lebanese lawyer, May al-Khansa, said she believed the Saudi Supreme Court's decision meant he will soon be released.
"There is no reason for a retrial; either he's guilty and they have evidence, or they don't," she said. "The fact that the court rejected the death sentence means that he's innocent and the next step is closing the case and deporting him to Lebanon."
Amnesty International says a Sudanese man, Abdul-Hamid al-Fakki, has also been convicted of sorcery and is still believed to be at risk of execution.
Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.