Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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Saudi Arabia executes "sorcerer"

The kingdom's zero-tolerance attitude to psychics contrasts with our own more laissez-faire approach

Sally Morgan, aka "Psychic Sally", a popular television clairvoyant, finds herself in a spot of bother today. After one of her shows in Dublin, an audience member described how she had heard a man hidden in a small room at the back of the theatre passing on information about people in the audience. Professor Chris French reports:

Sue believes, not unreasonably, that the man was feeding information to Sally through an earpiece attached to her microphone. For example, the voice would say something like "David, pain in the back, passed quickly" and a few seconds later Sally would claim to have the spirit of a "David" on stage who -- you'll never guess -- suffered from back pain and passed quickly.

Morgan has denied everything. Perhaps, though, she should consider herself fortunate to have no only disillusioned audience members and professional sceptics to deal with. In Saudi Arabia, a man has just been beheaded for doing far less.

Abdul Hamid Bin Hussein Bin Moustafa al-Fakki, from Sudan, was convicted in 2007 of the crime of sorcery. According to Amnesty International, which appealed for clemency, he was approached by a member of the religious police, the Mutawa'een, who requested a spell to persuade his father to go back to his first wife, the man's mother. Al-Fakki agreed to cast the spell for the sum of 6,000 riyals (around £1,000) but was arrested after handing over the fruit of his labours: nine pieces of paper with codes written on them with saffron. The Mutawa'een had written down the serial numbers of the banknotes with which Al-Fakki was paid.

However worthless the spell, death by beheading seems a bit harsh.The case is not an isolated one. Ali Sibat, a Labenese national whose "crime" seems to have consisted of telling fortunes on satellite TV, was arrested while on pilgrimage in Medina in 2008. He came close to being executed last year. International pressure seems to have won him a last-minute reprieve but he remains in prison on death row. His case has been highlighted by Human Rights Watch.

Then there's Fawza Falih, detained by religious police in 2005 and allegedly beaten and forced to fingerprint a confession that she could not read. She was accused of making a man impotent by means of magic. The only evidence was the man's testimony but an appeal court upheld the death sentence as being in the public interest. She was still on death row when she died last year, her health broken. She is said to have "choked on her food".

The decision to execute al-Fikki, the first time a "sorcerer" has been decapitated since 2007 (when the guilty man was also convicted of adultery and desecrating a Quran), may mark a new phase in a clampdown against witchcraft in the kingdom that has been in going on for some time now. In early 2009, leading Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice -- the body that oversees the religious police -- had launched a new strategy. Previous cases had "revealed the spread of witchcraft and magic throughout the country" and thus the inadequacy of the current laws. The new plans were intended to produce a more coherent approach

by making legal and regulatory determinations, as well as clarify the burden of evidence for magic and witchcraft cases as being scientific and practical, while also increasing the number of those involved incombating such cases.

They sought, among other things, a scientific definition to magical practices, and a model in order to help uncover such practices. " A joint taskforce was set up embracing the religious police and security agencies, encouraging them to work more closely together in the campaign against sorcery." The experts were anxious "to protect the public from communication and television channels that promote magic" partly through a publicity campaign warning about the dangers -- and also expressed concerns about the internet.

Despite all this pseudo-rationalism, the disturbing fact remains that, in the 21st century, a key western ally is still executing people for a wholly imaginary crime. Even Psychic Sally doesn't deserve that.