Page last updated at 17:02 GMT, Thursday, 1 April 2010 18:02 UK

Saudi move to execute 'sorcery man' sparks protest

Riyadh street scene
Many Saudi executions are beheadings by the sword in public places

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been urged to intervene to stop the execution of a Lebanese national accused of sorcery in Saudi Arabia.

Amnesty International said TV fortune teller Ali Hussain Sabat seemed to have been convicted for "exercising of his right to freedom of expression".

Mr Sabat's lawyer said she had been informed unofficially that he could be beheaded by the end of this week.

But Beirut's envoy to Riyadh said the case was still being heard.

The condemned man hosted a satellite TV show in which he predicted the future.

He was arrested by the Saudi religious police while on pilgrimage to the country in 2008.

Malcolm Smart, head of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa programme, said it was "high time the Saudi Arabian government joined the international trend towards a worldwide moratorium on executions".

The Lebanese ambassador to Riyadh, Marwan Zein, said on Thursday that he had not been informed that Mr Sabat's execution was imminent, AFP news agency reports.

His case was "still being considered by the court", the ambassador said.

There has been no official confirmation from Saudi Arabia, but executions there are often carried out with little warning.

Egyptian executed

Human Rights Watch senior researcher Christophe Wilcke said the case had still to go before "the supreme court [in Riyadh] and... the king for ratification."

Mr Sabat's lawyer, May el-Khansa, contacted Lebanese leaders earlier to appeal on his behalf.

Ms Khansa says her client did make a confession but he only did so because he had been told he could go back to Lebanon if he did.

Lebanese Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar told AFP in Beirut: "I hope that Saudi authorities realise the same offence is not dealt with in the same manner in other countries and that they will be sensitive to all recommendations."

Human rights groups have accused the Saudis of "sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police".

An Egyptian working as a pharmacist in Saudi Arabia was executed in 2007 after having been found guilty of using sorcery to try to separate a married couple.

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

Nevertheless, there is still a big thirst for such services in a country where widespread superstition survives under the surface of strict religious orthodoxy, the BBC's Sebastian Usher says.

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