Family pleads for return of father sentenced to death for witchcraft

Lebanese pilgrim, arrested and convicted in Saudi Arabia on sorcery charges for his role in a TV show, due to be executed on Thursday

Some stories from the Middle East make you want to weep. But this one is truly heart-breaking.

The moment came when little Jamal walked back from school and climbed on the sofa beside me in her plaited hair and said – unprompted by any of her family – "Are you going to bring my Daddy home?" Alas, I could not tell a four-year-old of the powerlessness of journalists, nor that her father, a pious, poor Shia Muslim, may be executed in Saudi Arabia on Thursday – for witchcraft.

The story is almost too awful to relate because it should be untrue. But it is a fact that Ali Sbatt set off with members of his family two years ago to join the haj in Mecca. After 15 days, the morality police broke into his hotel room and charged him with sorcery. And the reason turns out to be that Ali, a truck driver, once worked for a now-defunct Lebanese television channel called Sheherezade and predicted happy news or gave encouragement to callers with personal problems.

How the Saudi police should have decided on his arrest when Mr Sbatt was making the haj – his eldest son Hussein was with him and showed me his father's portrait in his white pilgrimage robes, taken just before his imprisonment – is unclear. Shias in largely Sunni Saudi Arabia have been treated with suspicion since the Iranian revolution, and Mr Sbatt had an Iranian visa in his passport. Yet millions of Iranians make the pilgrimage to Mecca without being arrested.

He was condemned to death last month, and the religious court may confirm the sentence as soon as Thursday. The family's lawyer, May Khansa, has tried desperately to persuade Lebanese politicians to intervene to save Mr Sbatt's life – the Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, and President Michel Sleiman are aware of his case and so is the Sunni Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Amir Qabalan – but so far without success. Sheikh Qabalan did, however, say that what Mr Sbatt did on television was merely psychological help for people who have lost hope and did not involve black magic.

The family wisely appealed to Sunni prelates for help rather than dignitaries from their own Shia background. Their local member of parliament has been asked to assist – uselessly, it appears – and Ibrahim Najjar, the Minister for Justice, has said he has done "the necessary", whatever that is.

The family fears that Mr Sbatt was tortured after his arrest – he had no lawyers when he was sentenced – and Saudi courts, which routinely sentence alleged drug-dealers to beheadings, according to Amnesty International, do not meet international standards of fairness.

In the real world, of course, Lebanon does not cut much weight, but an act of mercy by King Abdullah might go a long way to ease Sunni-Shia relations and demonstrate that the monarch cares as much about Lebanese individuals as he clearly does about Syrian-Lebanese relations. Prime Minister Hariri is a Saudi citizen – his assassinated father Rafiq was also given Saudi nationality – so Mr Sbatt may still be spared.

Unfortunately, Saudi executioners may not feel much like mercy, and Hussein Sbatt told me yesterday that Saudi lawyers had asked for $1m to make a legal appeal, money which is unavailable in this tiny, poor village, some of whose houses still have mud walls and wooden rafters.

Mr Sbatt's mother, Samira, put her hands to her eyes and made a more impassioned appeal for her son's life. "Oh God, help me, bring our boy safely home." But only King Abdullah can decide whether or not to break young Jamal's heart.

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