The sentencing of a 75-year-old widow to 40 lashes and four months in prison for mingling with two young men who were reportedly bringing her bread has sparked new criticism of Saudi Arabia's ultraconservative religious police and judiciary.
Khamisa Sawadi, who is Syrian but was married to a Saudi, was convicted and sentenced last week for meeting with men who were not her immediate relatives. The two men, including one who was Sawadi's late husband's nephew, were also found guilty and sentenced to prison terms and lashes.
The woman's lawyer, Abdel Rahman al-Lahem, told The Associated Press on Monday that he plans to appeal the verdict, which also demands that Sawadi be deported after serving her prison term. He declined to provide more details and said his client, who is not serving her sentence yet, was not speaking with the media.
Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam prohibits men and women who are not immediate relatives from mingling and women from driving. The playing of music, dancing and many movies also are a concern for hard-liners who believe they violate religious and moral values.
A special police unit called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice enforces these laws, patrolling public places to make sure women are covered and not wearing make up, sexes don't mix, shops close five times a day for Muslim prayers and men go to the mosque to worship.
But criticism of the religious police and judiciary has been growing in Saudi, where many say they exploit their broad mandate to interfere in people's lives.
Last month, the Saudi king dismissed the chief of the religious police and a cleric who condoned killing of TV network owners that broadcast "immoral content" — as part of a shake-up signaling an effort to weaken the kingdom's hard-line Sunni Muslim establishment.
In Sawadi's case, the elderly woman met the two 24-year-old men last April after she asked them to bring her five loaves of bread, the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan reported.
The men — identified by Al-Watan as the nephew, Fahd al-Anzi, and his friend and business partner Hadiyan bin Zein — went to Sawadi's home in the city of al-Chamil, located north of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. After delivering the bread, the two men were arrested by a one of the religious police, Al-Watan reported.
The court said it based its March 3 ruling on "citizen information" and testimony from al-Anzi's father, who accused Sawadi of corruption.
"Because she said she doesn't have a husband and because she is not a Saudi, conviction of the defendants of illegal mingling has been confirmed," the court verdict read.
Sawadi had told the court that she considered al-Anzi is her son, because she breast-fed him when he was a baby. But the court denied her claim, saying she didn't provide evidence. In Islamic tradition, breast-feeding establishes a degree of maternal relation, even if a woman nurses a child who is not biologically hers.
Sawadi commonly asked her neighbors for help after her husband died, said Saudi journalist Bandar al-Ammar, who reported the story for Al-Watan. In a recent article, he wrote that he felt the need to report the case "so everybody knows to what degree we have reached."
Others have also spoken out against the case against Sawadi, accusing the religious police of going too far.
"How can a verdict be issued based on suspicion?" Saudi doctor and columnist Laila Ahmed al-Ahdab wrote in Al-Watan on Monday. "A group of people are misusing religion to serve their own interests."