February 13, 2008
HRH King Abdullah bin Abd al-’Aziz Al Saud
Your Royal Highness,
Human Rights Watch urges you to immediately halt the execution of Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali, currently imprisoned in Quraiyat Prison. Fawza Falih has exhausted her appeals and her relatives in Jordan believe the papers are currently in your office awaiting your approval of the execution.
Your Highness, the conviction of Fawza Falih for “witchcraft” is a travesty of justice and reveals severe shortcomings in Saudi Arabia’s justice system. The crime of “witchcraft” is not defined by law; judges breached safeguards for a fair trial in existing Saudi law; and there were significant procedural flaws throughout the trial which effectively eradicated her ability to defend herself against the ill-defined charges against her.
We remain convinced that Fawza Falih has not committed any crime at all. First, it is not clear what the actual elements if any of the crime of “witchcraft” are, and the offence is not defined in Saudi law. As you know, Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code that spells out the elements of a given crime. The accusation of witchcraft appears to have been based upon a broad, vague concept, which cannot be said to constitute “law”. Under international human rights law, persons suspected of crimes may only be charged with offenses as established by law, and which are sufficiently clear so that everyone has the possibility to understand clearly what behavior it is that will cause them to violate that law.
Furthermore, in addition to the lack of a clear definition of “witchcraft” in Saudi law and the absence of a written penal code in which to search for such a definition, the judges in the court of Quraiyat did not define the meaning of “witchcraft”, but instead cited a variety of alleged actions, stated intentions, and “tools” for “witchcraft” in a weak attempt to suggest that “witchcraft” had indeed taken place. The court cited one instance in which a man allegedly became impotent after being “bewitched.” In another, a divorced woman reportedly returned to her ex-husband during the month predicted by the witch said to have cast the spell. The court failed to probe alternative explanations for these developments which appear to be ordinary phenomena. Indeed drawing on the illustrations cited by the courts, it is evident that the practice of “witchcraft”, if it exists, is by its nature impossible to prove, since it involves the alleged use of supernatural powers.
The court record itself reveals significant doubt about the truth of the “witchcraft” accusations, which are substantiated solely on the basis of statements by persons who believed they had been “bewitched,” and by “strange” objects reportedly found in the house of the accused and on a tree.
Court Verdict number 125/2 of October 10, 2006 (17/9/1427) states that Fawza Falih confessed that “I take 1,500 Riyal for each act of which I send half to the magician Abu Tal’a [who allegedly taught her “witchcraft”] according to the agreement, for Abu Tal’a said to me, ‘If you do not bring the money, by God, you will become possessed by jinn like dogs.” If any “strange” acts did indeed take place, they seem to have been the result of a money-making scam. Those who lost money have not sued to have their money returned. Fawza Falih’s alleged actions did not result in any complaints of injury or damage suffered by any party.
In addition, there were numerous procedural and legal errors throughout the course of this trial. Judges of the court appear to have both disregarded established laws and made up new law as the trial proceeded. Their first verdict sentenced Fawza Falih to death for “witchcraft” as an “offense against God” (hadd) with a prescribed punishment of death. The legal basis for this decision includes the statement that witches “are not given the opportunity to repent, because witchcraft is not eradicable by penitence.”
Following remarks on the case by the Court of Appeals of September 1, 2006 (19/12/1427) that two of the accused were sentenced to death “despite having retracted their confessions,” and that consequently “doubt shields from hadd punishments,” the judges in Quraiyat, in a new verdict of June 6, 2007 (25/5/1428), sentenced Fawza Falih to death on a “discretionary” basis, in the name of “public interest” and to “preserve the creed and the souls and property of this country.”
Aside from the spurious nature of the charges against her, during the trial, Fawza Falih attended only the first and the last of at least six sessions. Article 140 of the LCP states that, “in major crimes, the accused shall personally appear before the court.” In the first session, only one judge was present and questioned her. Article 129 of the LCP specifies that a panel of three judges must sit in cases involving death sentences, and Article 7 halts proceedings until the judges have reached the prescribed number. Furthermore, the accused was unable to challenge any of the witnesses against her: the witnesses did not testify in court, but gave written statements, and the judge kept her in the waiting room during sessions when evidence was presented. Article 163 of the LCP states that “Each of the parties may cross-examine the witnesses called by the other party and discuss its evidence.” Fawza Falih in her appeal claims not to even know some of the witnesses who claim have seen her perform acts of “witchcraft”. The denial of her legal right to cross-examine witnesses in court seriously impaired her efforts to defend herself against the charges.
The judge also prevented her son, who was acting as her officially certified legal representative, from attending any of the court sessions, violating Article 4 of the LCP which gives “Any accused person … the right to seek the assistance of a lawyer or a representative to defend him during the investigation and trial stages.” Article 140 states that the obligation to appear in person in major crimes cannot be used as a justification to exclude legal representatives from the proceedings.
Other aspects of the arrest, treatment and trial of Fawza Falih are also deeply worrying. Fawza Falih spent 35 days in detention at the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) after her arrest on May 4, 2005 (25/3/1426). Her detention there violated a 1981 royal decree prohibiting the CPVPV from holding and interrogating suspects at their centers. She asserted in her appeal that she was beaten during her interrogation, naming one official of the governorate. Her appeal states that she lost consciousness during one beating and was treated at the hospital. She asserts that fellow female prisoners bandaged her wounds. Human Rights Watch spoke to a relative who was allowed to visit her for the first time after about 20 days in CPVPV detention, following her hospital treatment, and saw marks from beatings on her back. There would thus have been ample evidence to indicate that her confession was coerced.
The interrogators and the judges violated Fawza Falih’s rights to due process and a fair trial in other ways as well. Her family hired lawyer Abdullah al-Suhaimi, but the head of the interrogation committee refused him access to her when he asked to see her within a few days of her arrest. Article 64 of the Law of Criminal Procedure (LCP) specifies that “During the investigation, the accused shall have the right to seek the assistance of a representative or an attorney,” and Article 70 states that “The Investigator shall not, during the investigation, separate the accused from his accompanying representative or attorney.” Furthermore, Fawza Falih, who is illiterate, claims that her confession was not read to her, but that she was nonetheless forced to fingerprint it as a mark of authentication.
Your Highness, Human Rights Watch is deeply troubled by the miscarriage of justice that has occurred in the case of Fawza Falih. We urge you to halt immediately all proceedings for her execution, to void her sentence, and to instruct officials to preserve the facts of the case so that the prosecution may initiate proceedings against the members of the CPVPV and the governorate who wrongfully arrested and mistreated Fawza Falih and so that the inspector of the judiciary is able to initiate disciplinary proceedings against the judges who violated her rights under Saudi and international law.
Human Rights Watch