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Beheading of Man in Saudi Arabia for Witchcraft Averted

A Lebanese man condemned to death for witchcraft by a Saudi court will not be beheaded Friday as had been expected, his lawyer said.

Ali Hussain Sibat, the father of five, was to be executed after noon prayers Friday, but a frenzy of media coverage, appeals by international human rights groups and intervention by several Lebanese government officials, may have saved his life, at least temporarily.

His lawyer, May al-Khansa, said she was still unsure whether the beheading had been waived or postponed.

A Shi'ite Muslim, Sibat traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2008 to perform a religious pilgrimage known as 'umra,' when he was arrested by Saudi's religious police who accused him of practicing sorcery. The charges stem from Sibat's job in Lebanon, where he has hosted a popular television show in which he made predictions on an Arab satellite TV channel from his home in Beirut.

There is no legal definition of witchcraft in Saudi Arabia, but horoscopes and fortune telling are condemned as un-Islamic.

Khansa is asking the Saudi government for mercy. "I'm asking to forgive him. I'm asking amnesty," he said.

Though there is no law on the books stating that witchcraft is a crime, Saudi Arabian authorities have been known to arrest people for it before. In 2007, an Egyptian national was put to death for sorcery.

The human rights group Amnesty International has been calling for an end to Saudi Arabia's use of capital punishment. Amnesty researcher Lamri Chirouf says the rulings of the Saudi courts operate arbitrarily and secretively. "There are many other people (who) have been arrested for sorcery, but it wasn't seen by the judges as a seriously (as serious). The death penalty is used excessively in Saudi Arabia. There is no law on what is and is not capital punishment, and the courts are very secretive, so the accused is not guaranteed a right of defense. We don't know if there's another story. The court judgement just refers to acts of sorcery, but didn't say what the acts were supposed to be," Chirouf said.

Khansa had contacted Lebanese leaders earlier to appeal on his client's behalf. The leaders would not speak publicly, but Khanza said she was told the Lebanese government did lobby for Sabit.

Chirouf says, until that is clear, it is important to keep putting pressure on the Saudi government. "Human rights are the responsibility of everybody. It's a collective responsibility, not only of the Lebanese. It doesn't mean the United States, UK and France, etc should not be concerned. We should all be in this together," Chirouf said.

There is a law against witchcraft in Lebanon, but it is considered a misdemeanor, punishable at most, by a few months of jail. The death penalty is also still legal in Lebanon, but used sparingly, and in recent years, some politicians have called for the Lebanese government to abolish it altogether.