CAIRO — A 75-year-old widow in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to 40 lashes and four months in jail for mingling with two young men who are not close relatives, drawing new criticism for the kingdom's ultraconservative religious police and judiciary.
The woman's lawyer said on Monday that he would appeal the verdict against Khamisa Sawadi, who is Syrian but was married to a Saudi. The attorney, Abdel Rahman al-Lahem, said the verdict issued March 3 also demands that Sawadi be deported after serving her sentence.
He said his client, who is not serving her sentence yet, was not speaking with the media, and he declined to provide more details about the case.
The newspaper Al-Watan said the woman met with the two 24-year-old men last April after she asked them to bring her five loaves of bread at her home in al-Chamil, a city north of the capital, Riyadh.
Al-Watan identified one man as Fahd al-Anzi, the nephew of Sawadi's late husband, and the other as his friend and business partner Hadiyan bin Zein. It said they were arrested by the religious police after delivering the bread. The men also were convicted and sentenced to lashes and prison.
The court said it based its 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.
Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam prohibits men and women who are not immediate relatives from mingling. It also bars women from driving, and the playing of music, dancing and many movies also are a concern for hard-liners who believe they violate religious and moral values.
Complaints from Saudis have been growing that the religious police and courts are overstepping their broad mandate and interfering in people's lives, and critics lambasted the handling of Sawadi's case.
"How can a verdict be issued based on suspicion?" Laila Ahmed al-Ahdab, a physician who also is a columnist for Al-Watan, wrote Monday. "A group of people are misusing religion to serve their own interests."
Sawadi told the court she considered al-Anzi as 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 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."
The woman's conviction came a few weeks after King Abdullah fired the chief of the religious police and a cleric who condoned killing owners of TV networks that broadcast "immoral content." The move was seen as part of an effort to weaken the hard-line Sunni Muslim establishment.