RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – A Saudi criminal court has convicted and sentenced an al-Qaida militant to death and given more than 300 others jail terms, fines and travel bans in the country's first known terrorism trials for suspected members of the terror network, officials said Wednesday.
A Justice Ministry spokesman said the court looked into 179 cases involving the 330 defendants who were found guilty. The spokesman did not give any details on the person sentenced to death, but his punishment suggests he could be a senior member of al-Qaida.
Saudi Arabia has pursued an aggressive campaign against militants since May 2003, when they first began attacks in the kingdom, which is al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's birthplace and home to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.
The network's attacks have targeted expatriate residential compounds, oil installations and government buildings.
However, the first known legal proceedings, which have been held in utmost secrecy, apparently did not start until last year. Authorities had been reluctant to resort to trials for terrorism charges that could result in death sentences until they had shown the public that every effort had been made to give the men a chance to renounce their crimes and be rehabilitated.
The 330 are believed to be among the 991 suspected militants that Interior Minister Prince Nayef has said had been charged with participating in terrorist attacks over the past five years.
Sheik Abdullah al-Saadan, the Justice Ministry spokesman, told Saudi TV the court has acquitted "some" defendants. He did not say how many nor did he say when the trials began. There have been vague reports of such trials in local media recently.
"The verdicts ranged from ... jail terms that depend on the nature of the crime and death in one of the cases," al-Saadan said.
He said the rulings also included financial penalties, travel bans and house arrests in the city of the defendants' choice, added al-Saadan. A transcript of his remarks were carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
Al-Saadan said the verdicts can be appealed. He also said preparations are under way to give access to the press to cover the trials, apparently referring to those of the remaining detainees.
A statement issued by a spokesman for the Bureau of Investigation and General Prosecution said the defendants were accused of belonging to the "deviant group," a euphemism for al-Qaida.
They were also accused of supporting and financing terrorism, going to areas of conflict to fight, and coordinating and communicating with "external parties that seek to conspire against national security by creating chaos and disrupting security," according to the unnamed spokesman.
The statement, also carried by official press agency, said the charge sheets included "incriminating evidence of these dangerous acts and proof that every defendant has carried out the charges against him."
There have been no major attacks since February 2006, when suicide bombers tried but failed to attack an oil facility at the Abqaiq oil complex, the world's largest oil processing facility, in eastern Saudi Arabia.