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Saudi Witch Hunt

A man named Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded in Saudi Arabia this week after being found in possession of spell books and talismans. Beheading is "God's punishment" for "sorcerers and charlatans," according to a statement that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued in March.

Al-Asiri's execution was the latest accomplishment of Saudi Arabia's Anti-Witchcraft Unit, an elite police force specifically trained to track down and arrest practitioners of magic. The Anti-Witchcraft Unit was part of a larger campaign to exterminate sorcery from the kingdom which began in 2009 and has included a hotline for reporting witch sightings, raids on suspected houses, and lectures to inform the public about the dangers of magicians -- "key causers of religious and social instability in the country," according to the Commission's statement.

Among other things, the trouble is that magic is a broadly-defined category in Saudi law, as Uri Friedman recently explained in FP. It's not unusual for prosecutors in Saudi courts to use "witchcraft" or "sorcery" as catch-all labels for all manner of offenses -- and for defendants to use the same terms as excuses -- because the kingdom is swift to mete out punishments for this kind of deviance.

Because Saudi Arabia does not have a penal code (or a legal definition of witchcraft), it is up to a judge to decide whether someone should be condemned as a witch or a sorcerer. Sometimes all it takes is having a book with foreign writing, items that officers of the Anti-Witchcraft Unit don't recognize, or an accuser with a strong vendetta to lose your head as a convicted magician. In al-Asiri's case, his confession to two counts of adultery may have been the original reason for his arrest.

The Anti-Witchcraft Unit received almost 600 reports of witchcraft in the past few years. Whether or not these are actual cases of people purporting to practice the occult or just a pretext, the government clearly takes the problem seriously.

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British colonialism and anti-gay laws

Quite a bit of attention has been paid to the influence U.S. evangelical groups have had in the attempts to pass harsh anti-gay laws in African countries like Uganda ... as well as the role of western aid in pressuring countries like Malawi to revoke these laws. But a new paper in the forthcoming issue of Comparative Politics makes the case that the origins of these laws go back much further.

Political scientists Victor Asal, Udi Sommer, and Paul Harwood examined a sample of a sample of countries between 1972 and 2002 in an attempt to identify common factors that led to explicit legal prohibition of homosexuality. In addition to expected factors like religion and economic development, they also found that countries that inherited their legal systems from British common law were far more likely to have laws against homosexual bevior:

Indeed, almost six out of every ten countries in which homosexual activity is illegal (the largest group in our dataset) have Common Law systems. Conversely, of the countries in which anti-sodomy laws were not on the books since at least 1970, over 80% have Civil Law as their legal system.

They continue:

The original sin related to homosexual acts (to the extent that there is one) is related to the legal system put in place by the state, rather than to the behavior of individuals. The "Original Sin" linked to the criminalization of gay sexual activity is that of the export of the Common Law system that criminalized buggery in Great Britain in 1533. Common law adopted by other nations (or alternatively imposed on them) in conjunction with subsequent judicial decisions and statutes passed over the centuries, led to criminalization of homosexual acts. 

British criminal law didn't drop capital punishment for "buggery" until 1861. Homosexual acts weren't decriminalized until 1967. By contrast, same-sex sexual relations have been legal in France, or at least not specifically prohibited, since 1791, and former French colonies are less likely to ban them today.

Religion is still the most influential factor in determining whether a country adopts anti-gay laws, the authors write, but the findings on Common Law are yet another indication of how much the nature of colonial institutions continue to shape the politics of former colonies.

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