International fury over Saudi Arabia's plans to behead woman accused of being a witch
The Saudi Arabian king today faced international outcry over the planned beheading of a woman accused of being a witch.
Fawza Falih turned two men impotent, a court heard in the ultra-religious state where “performing supernatural occurrences” is considered an offence against Islam.
Judges were also told she cast a spell to bring about the return of a divorced man's ex-wife.
But international charity Human Rights Watch said King Abdullah's religious police had forced a confession out of her.
And they claim 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."
The court also relied on the statements of witnesses who said she had "bewitched" them to convict her in April 2006, according to HRW.
Fawza 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.
An appeals court ruled in September 2006 that Fawza could not be sentenced to death for witchcraft as a crime against God, because she had retracted her confession.
After that, the lower court judges re-sentenced her to death on the court's "discretionary" basis, for the benefit of "public interest" and to "protect the creed, souls and property of this country."
HRW's Joe Stork said: “The fact that Saudi judges still conduct trials for unprovable crimes like 'witchcraft' underscores their inability to carry out objective criminal investigations.
"Fawza Falih's case is an example of how the authorities failed to comply even with existing safeguards in the Saudi justice system.
"The judges' behavior in Fawza Falih's trial shows they were interested in anything but a quest for the truth," Mr Stork added.
"They completely disregarded legal guarantees that would have demonstrated how ill-founded this whole case was."
The statement did not mention Fawza's nationality but said she has relatives in Jordan. Also, Falih's age is unknown.
The case is one of several that have triggered criticism of the Saudi legal system, which does not have a written penal code that spells out the elements of a particular crime.
The Law of Criminal Procedure issued in 2002 grants defendants the right to be tried in person, to have a lawyer present during interrogation and trial and to cross-examine any prosecution witnesses.
But in practice, lawyers are often banned from courtrooms, rules of evidence are shaky and sentences often depend on the whim of judges.
The most frequent - and recently, most high-profile - victims of such whimsical rulings are women, who already suffer severe restrictions in their daily life in Saudi Arabia.
U.N. tells Saudis to tackle violence against women
Saudi Arabia must create laws to protect women from violence and also allow them to play a bigger role in society and the workplace, the United Nations said on Thursday.
"The lack of written laws governing private life constitutes a major obstacle to women's access to justice," said Yakin Erturk, the U.N.'s human rights expert on violence against women.
In a statement she called on Saudi Arabia to create a legal framework based on international human rights standards, including a law criminalizing violence against women.
That would also include a family law on marriage, divorce and minimum age for marriage, said the Turkish sociology professor at the end of a 10-day visit to Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally and the world's top oil exporter.
"The need to address women's rights will grow increasingly urgent as the voices of women in Saudi society are heard," she said.
The treatment of women has become an increasing embarrassment for Saudi Arabia. The country drew international criticism after its Supreme Judicial Council condemned a 19-year-old woman to 200 lashes and six months in jail for having been with a man she was not related to when she was attacked and raped by seven other men in 2006.
King Abdullah pardoned the gang-rape victim in December.
Saudi Arabia drafting new law to protect women, children
Saudi Arabia is drafting a new law that, when implemented, will go a long way in protecting women and children from violence.
The Experts Commission at the council of ministers is expected to finish revising the draft next week, which defines child abuse, violence against women and punishment and penalties for these, according to a report in the Saudi Gazette newspaper.
'It is high time now to come with such a law against such practices and to define the responsibility of each party,' Saudi Minister for Social Affairs Abdul Mohsen Al-Akass was quoted as saying in the report.
'We are pushing hard for the endorsement of this law in order to put an end to these unacceptable malpractices.'
He said the new law is aimed at protecting the rights of women, be they wives, sisters or domestic maids, and of children, both female and male.
According to the draft law, fines or punishments or both may be imposed upon those found guilty of subjecting women and children to physical or mental abuse.
The draft called upon the social affairs ministry to coordinate and cooperate with NGOs and with the education, health and culture and information ministries to launch public awareness campaigns against family violence.
1) International fury over Saudi Arabia's plans to behead woman accused of being a witch
2) U.N. tells Saudis to tackle violence against women
3) Saudi Arabia drafting new law to protect women, children