Airing immodest shows could incur death penalty: Saudi cleric

RIYADH (Reuters) - The head of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Sharia courts has said owners of Arabic television stations airing immodest shows in Ramadan could face execution, Saudi web sites said Friday.

Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, one of the most powerful clerics in the world’s biggest oil exporter, was responding to a question on a radio phone-in program Wednesday about the owners of TV stations airing programs that “offend modesty,” especially during the holy month of Ramadan.

“If the evil of those who promote corruption in belief and actions cannot be held back through lesser punishments, then they can be put to death through the judicial process,” Lohaidan, head of the Supreme Judicial Council said.

Recordings of the show were posted on web sites and passed around by mobile phone message in Saudi Arabia.

He appeared to be referring to Turkish soap operas that became hugely popular in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries this year, provoking a storm of anger among conservatives in Saudi Arabia who fear the spread of secular culture.

They gained huge popularity partly because they were dubbed into colloquial Arabic and focused on a Muslim country whose culture many Arabs can relate to. The characters would fast in Ramadan but also drink wine.

The government’s official advisor on religious affairs, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz Al al-Sheikh, said in July it was not Islamically permissible to watch the Turkish serials.

The shows, “Nour” and “Lost Years,” were aired by MBC, a satellite television group owned by a brother-in-law of former Saudi King Fahd and based in the United Arab Emirates.

Concerned about the country’s international image, some key members of the Saudi royal family have promoted liberal reforms but others have stayed close to the powerful clerics.

Ramadan is a month of fasting when Muslims are supposed to focus on God, but critics say it becomes an orgy of TV and food consumption once the fast ends at sunset.

Reporting by Andrew Hammond; editing by Philippa Fletcher; Riyadh newsroom