As the Saudi system of justice makes international headlines, outsiders find it difficult to assess its validity. When Yvonne Gilford, a 55-year old Australian nurse, was murdered in Dhahran, Saudi authorities charged two of her British colleagues, Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan, with the crime. Doubts arose when it became clear that few of the customary Western procedures (calling of witnesses, cross examination) protected the rights of the accused. The two bombings of American servicemen prompted even graver doubts: in the first case, the Saudi officials executed four men without letting American officials have access to them; in the second, they simply declared the case closed, without even bothering to announce the results.
It turns out that there is every reason to doubt the processes behind these decisions. In a stunning piece of legal sleuth-work, Human Rights Watch has looked into another recent case and revealed the ways in which Saudi kangaroo courts operate. Naqshabandi was a Syrian national long in the employ of Prince Salman, a nephew of King Fahd. When Salman sought to rid himself of Naqshabandi, he came up with the unheard-of charge of witchcraft (sihr), unheard of because so widely practiced among Saudi elites—every rich person has a favorite wizard, people openly discuss who is the king's favorite and how he influences decisions. Salman had Naqshabandi arrested in February 1994. With enough clout, it appears, anything can be done in Saudi Arabia: on December 13, 1996, Naqshabandi was executed on this never-used charge. Kudos to Human Rights Watch for making known this atrocity and, more generally, the modus operandi of the Saudi judicial system.