The official Saudi newspaper Arab News reports on the case of a Saudi teenager convicted of blackmailing a girl after being arrested by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
A court in Al-Ahsa has sentenced a 19-year-old Saudi youth to five years' imprisonment and 500 lashes for blackmailing a girl and threatening to publish her photos if she did not go out with him.
Col. Yousuf Al-Qahtani, spokesman for the Eastern Province police, said the teenager was caught by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice after the girl's brother filed a complaint last month.
He said the court also ordered the young man to return all of the girl's photos and that if any of her pictures were to appear after that a more severe punishment would be handed out.
Al-Qahtani said the harsh sentence was aimed at deterring others from blackmailing young girls, especially since the prevalence of such crimes has increased of late.
This type of blackmail is getting some attention in the Arab media. Al Arabiya, a Arabic-language cable news network based in Dubai, carried a report earlier this month. In a December, Arab News reported on the growing official concern about incidents in which photographs have been used to threaten women with embarrassment or worse in the ultraconservative kingdom. In many cases, the photos are innocent cellphone photos that would hardly raise an eyebrow in Western nations but are seen in Saudi Arabia as scandalous if the woman isn't wearing an abaya or hijab to protect her modesty. It may be a stranger or an unacknowledged ex-boyfriend who threatens to post the pictures, but the blame in many cases also falls on the women. In some cases, the photos may be obtained during an illicit meeting, since "dating" is not acceptable behavior. In other cases, women report that the photos are stolen when a computer or cellphone is left at a repair shop.
Relations with the opposite gender prior to marriage are something frowned upon in the Kingdom. Exchanging photographs or love letters with a boyfriend might cause immense problems to a woman if her family, fiancé or husband were to find out. As a result, some men take advantage and blackmail women into giving them cash or forcing them to have sex.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah previously called for the setting up of a committee comprising several governmental bodies to come up with solutions to the problem.
"The committee studying the issue has advised dealing with the problem in three ways," said Ahmad Al-Ghamdi, head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in the Makkah region, adding that his field workers solved 40 such cases in Makkah this year alone.
"The first way consists of taking preventive action prior to a incident by increasing awareness among the public and building trust. The second stage is concerned with urging governmental bodies to deal with such cases sensitively to encourage women to come forward," he added.
"The final stage is concerned with the psychological and social effects of such occurrences. This requires the help of psychology specialists," he said, adding that the cooperation of governmental bodies concerned with social and family issues is crucial in ensuring the success of the scheme.
"Some women become victims because of the abuse they face at home or because of poverty. There is a need for safe shelters where victims can be helped," he said.
The commission head added that recommendations include the setting up of a hotline for victims. He added that the majority of blackmail victims are women, followed by minors and then young men.