JAKARTA, Indonesia – Two Indonesian women who were sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for Witchcraft have been freed after being acquitted. The two domestic workers returned to Jakarta, Indonesia about two weeks ago on April 24, 2019. The women had been held in Saudi Arabia for almost a decade. The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced their release.
The two women, Sumartini binti Manaungi Galisung and Warnah binti Ni’ing, were convicted in 2009 by a court in Riyadh. The women were sentenced to death on January 7 of that year by the Riyadh Criminal Court.
Sumartini and Warnah both worked in Saudi Arabia as maids. Both were accused of using black magic against their employers; and both had been in jail since their convictions and were awaiting their execution.
Sumartini was accused of using Witchcraft to make her employer’s 17-year old son vanish. The boy was found alive.
Warnah was accused of casting a spell on her employer’s wife that resulted in an unknown illness. The employer recovered.
The two women’s relationship to Witchcraft is unclear. One commentator to the Middle East Monitor noted that “Wica [sic] is a religion that is recognized in the West. Don’t burn the witch!”
Earlier this year, the sentences of the two women were reportedly commuted. They were to have been released in March and sent home. Their employer, however, reportedly objected to their release and appealed. According to BBC, the employers sought to prevent the women from leaving Saudi Arabia even as they were being driven to the airport just after their release.
“After tough negotiations, the embassy was able to convince the Saudi government that the women could return to their homeland,” said Agus Maftuh Abegebriel, Indonesia’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia to the AFP news agency. The negotiations focused on the safety of the women first, particularly from their Saudi sponsors. The ambassador added that additional negotiations took place around wages and the continued possibility to Indonesian maids to seek work in Saudi Arabia.
An Indonesian ministry official, Judha Nugraha, who handles citizen protection told the Jakrata Globe, “Most of the witchcraft allegations are reported against Indonesian workers in Saudi Arabia because they come from rural areas and often have items with them that raise suspicion among employers or law enforcement officials, who believe those items are used to perform black magic.”
Sumartini and Warnah had other supporters as well. When Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud visited Indonesia in 2017, street protests demanded the immediate release of the two women.
Saudi Arabia is one of a small handful of countries still legally executing individuals for practicing any form of sorcery or witchcraft.
Saudi Arabia’s obsession with persecuting, prosecuting, and executing those accused of Witchcraft is decades old. Under the auspices of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), the governmental theocratic arm charged with maintaining accountability to Islamic doctrine, the Saudi government added to its religious police force a special “Anti-Witchcraft Unit” in 2009. The purpose of the unit is to “educate the public about the evils of sorcery, investigate alleged witches, neutralize their cursed paraphernalia, and disarm their spells”. The Saudi Press Agency adds that the Anti-Witchcraft will “combat manifestations of polytheism and reliance on other Gods”. The unit offers a special hotline to report any magic use.
In its 2018 annual report, the United States’ Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that “The CPVPV has special units throughout the country to combat sorcery and witchcraft. In December 2017, it also publicized a special training event, in conjunction with the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Grand Mosque, to instruct CPVPV members in Mecca how to identify sorcerous materials.” The report added that the accusations of Witchcraft were often brought by employers and that the evidence of Witchcraft involved “disrupting Saudi society by dividing families or distorting religious texts.”
Amnesty International reported last year that Witchcraft is among the crimes for which Saudi Arabia is conducting executions. Amnesty International vagueness of Saudi legislation and the limited and flawed defense protocols available to those accused. Least year during Halloween, for example, 17 Filipina workers in Saudi Arabia were taken into custody after neighbors complained reportedly about noise.