RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – A senior Saudi official said Sunday that owners of satellite TV networks that show "immoral" content should be brought to trial and sentenced to death if other penalties don't deter them from airing such broadcasts.
The comments by Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan, the chief of the kingdom's highest tribunal, the Supreme Judiciary Council, were an attempt to explain a fatwa, or decree, he issued last week, in which he said just that it was permissible to kill the network's owners.
Appearing on government-run Saudi TV Sunday, al-Lihedan seemed to be trying to calm the controversy his original comments triggered, explaining that the owners of offending networks should be warned and punished before possibly being brought to trial and executed.
Still, al-Lihedan, who is also a cleric, did not back down.
A prominent cleric condemned al-Lihedan's edict, saying it encourages terrorism and allows "the enemies of Islam" to portray the faith as one that favors murder.
Al-Lihedan's edict was broadcast Thursday during the daily "Light in the Path" radio program in which he and others pass rulings on what is permissible under Islamic law.
One caller asked about Islam's view of the owners of satellite TV channels that show "bad programs" during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which began two weeks ago.
"I want to advise the owners of these channels, who broadcast calls for such indecency and impudence ... and I warn them of the consequences," al-Lihedan said. "What does the owner of these networks think, when he provides seduction, obscenity and vulgarity?"
"Those calling for corrupt beliefs, certainly it's permissible to kill them," al-Lihedan added. "Those calling for sedition, those who are able to prevent it but don't, it is permissible to kill them."
Al-Lihedan, 79, did not name a particular TV channel or programs in the radio show, which was taped a couple of months ago.
On Sunday, he said his "advice" was aimed at owners who broadcast witchcraft, indecent programs, shows that mock scholars or the religious police and comedies that are not appropriate for Ramadan.
Government-run channels in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia steer well clear of any programming that could be deemed risque. However, on satellite broadcasts it is possible to see Western music videos as well as American soaps and TV series, such as "Sex and the City," that include some nudity.
"If they are not deterred by the punishment and continue corrupting people through the broadcasts, then it is permissible for the relevant authorities to kill them after trials," al-Lihedan told Saudi TV. A transcript of the interview was carried by the official Saudi Press Agency in Arabic and English.
Al-Lihedan's remarks surprised many in the Arab world, especially since many of the most popular Arab satellite networks — which include channels showing music videos and special Ramadan soaps — are owned by Saudi princes and well-connected Saudi businessmen.
Sheik Abdul-Mohsen al-Obaikan, an adviser at the Justice Ministry and a member of the appointed Consultative Council that acts like a parliament, lashed out at al-Lihedan's edict, telling Al-Jazirah newspaper it would "lead to sedition and lend support to terrorism."
"It came to them (terrorists) on a gold platter and they will exploit it quickly and act to recruit our youths to take lives and blow up stations and the properties of the owners of the stations, all based on this (al-Lihedan's) grave response," al-Obaikan was quoted by Al-Jazirah as saying Saturday.
Saudi Arabia's judiciary is made up of Islamic clerics whose decrees, or fatwas, on everyday issues are widely respected. Their fatwas do not have the weight of law. In the courts, cleric-judges rule according to Islamic law, but interpretations can vary.