RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A young airline ticket agent who scandalized Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative society by bragging about his sexual prowess on television was sentenced today to five years in prison and 1,000 lashes.
Mazen Abdul-Jawad, 32, who has been in jail awaiting trial since late July, was found guilty by a Saudi court of publicizing vice.
“They said he said bad words on TV about relationships with women,” Abdul-Jawad’s lawyer, Suliman Al Jimaie, replied when asked to explain the criminal charge.
The attorney, who said he will appeal the verdict and sentencing, said his client denies making the controversial comments in a July 15 broadcast of “Bold Red Line,” a program on the satellite television channel Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC).
In addition to claiming that his first sexual experience was with a neighbor at age 14, Abdul-Jawad described how he picked up women by sending them messages on Bluetooth. He also showed off his bedroom, about which he said: “Everything happens in this room.”
Jimaie charged that LBC heavily edited the taped interview and altered what Abdul-Jawad said through dubbing. “It’s what you call a montage,” Al Jimaie said. “They showed him not in a real way. ... They changed his words.”
In a country where dating is not allowed, premarital sex is a crime and men and women are strictly separated in almost every activity — from schools to sports to public libraries — Abdul-Jawad’s comments were seen as promoting sinful behavior and violating all norms of propriety. Saudi judges are religious scholars who rule according to Islamic law, or Shariah law.
The father of four, who is separated from his wife, has been roundly denounced in the local press for his candid talk. He’s been called a “sexual braggart” and “promoter of vice,” even as his legal predicament is front page news.
More than 200 offended Saudis filed legal complaints against him, and some called for his execution. One sheikh compared his actions to treason.
The episode illustrates the very puritanical public attitude towards sex in Saudi Arabia, where people may be open about their sex life in private but never speak about it publicly.
It is a reticence unfamiliar in the United States, where only last week late-night TV host David Letterman won a round of robust applause when he admitted having sexual affairs with women on his staff. Letterman’s admission came as he disclosed that he had been targeted in a blackmailing scheme.
Soon after Abdul-Jawad's controversial interview aired, the Saudi government shut down LBC’s two offices in Riyadh and Jeddah. LBC has said from the beginning that it will not comment on the incident.
The satellite television channel is controlled by billionaire Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz. He is regarded as a liberalizing force in the kingdom, pushing for greater cultural freedoms for Saudi youth. He was a sponsor, for example, of the Jeddah Film Festival scheduled for last July. The Interior Ministry ordered it shut down at the last minute, with no explanation.
The prince, and other executives of satellite television stations, regularly come under fire from conservative sheikhs who criticize their program content, especially when it involves sex or male-female relationships.
Al Jimaie said today that the Ministry of Information has notified him that it will hold a hearing next month into whether LBC, and not Mazen, should be held responsible for the program. He said the channel was ordered by the ministry to bring the original videotape of Abdul-Jawad’s interview to the hearing.
The lawyer asserted that the producer and cameraman who did the interview, an Egyptian and a Lebanese, have fled the country with the tape.
The “Bold Red Line” is intentionally provocative in tackling society taboos. Most of its interviews are done in Lebanon.
The episode featuring Abdul-Jawad is tame by American standards. Sitting on a red bedspread in his bedroom, decorated with an American flag and a stuffed Mickey Mouse, the Saudi Airlines employee talks about how he loves to have sex and make his partner also feel pleasure.
He displays sex toys (blurred out on screen) and claims that “five drops” of a liquid he displays will increase a woman’s desire to have sex. He admits fantasizing about having sex in an airplane.
Some observers have criticized Malek Maktabi, the anchor of “Bold Red Line,” because he lived in Saudi Arabia many years and should have known that Abdul-Jawad’s interview would put him at risk. “This channel makes this problem,” said attorney Al Jimaie, adding that the interview was done about a year ago and that LBC had promised to allow Abdul-Jawad to approve the final cut. He also said that LBC provided the sex toys and asked Abdul-Jawad to talk about them.
The show’s producer told Abdul-Jawad that “we want you to talk about sex so young people know ... talk about marriage, what’s good and what’s bad. We need a person who’s not ashamed to talk,” Al Jimaie said.
In a tearful interview with Okaz newspaper before his arrest, Abdul-Jawad said that the program’s producers had promised to blur out his face. “You’ve no idea how upset the family was, particularly my brothers, relations and friends, some of whom were extremely angry with me and even thought I was drunk or that the people from the television channel had drugged me to make me talk in that awful way,” he told the paper.
“The worst part was when my son saw my picture in a newspaper and came to me with the paper in his hand crying. He hugged me and said he was scared I would be put in prison.”
Three other men who appeared in the television program, but said very little, today were each sentenced to two years in prison, Al Jimaie said.