Saudi sentences Yemeni to death over Spanish theatre group stabbing

Anuj Chopra
The stabbing happened at Riyadh's King Abdullah Park, one of the venues for a two-month entertainment festival (AFP Photo/FAYEZ NURELDINE)

Riyadh (AFP) - A Saudi court sentenced a Yemeni man to death Sunday for a knife attack on a Spanish theatre group, state television said, amid a controversial push to ease decades-old restrictions on entertainment.

The court also sentenced an accomplice to 12 and a half years in jail for the November 11 attack during a live performance in Riyadh, which state media linked to militant group Al-Qaeda, and which Madrid said left four performers wounded.

The verdict, which can be appealed, coincides with a mass crackdown on harassment at entertainment venues as the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom pursues a contentious liberalisation drive that marks the biggest cultural shakeup in its modern history.

"The criminal court issues a preliminary ruling handing the death sentence to the perpetrator of the terrorist attack... in Riyadh," the official Al-Ekhbariya television reported.

The assailant, identified by Saudi police as a 33-year-old Yemeni, went on a stabbing spree during a musical in the capital's King Abdullah Park, one of the venues hosting the two-month "Riyadh Season" entertainment festival.

It was the first such assault since the country began easing restrictions on entertainment.

Last week, Al-Ekhbariya said the attacker took orders from an Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, but so far there has been no claim of responsibility from the group.

Al-Ekhbariya did not offer any details on his alleged accomplice, including his nationality.

Saudi Arabia is leading a military coalition supporting the Yemeni government against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels and has also been involved in the fight against Al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is active in Yemen, is considered by the United States as the radical group's most dangerous branch.

Observers also point at burbling resentment among arch-conservatives in the kingdom over the government's multi-billion dollar entertainment push as it seeks to lure foreign tourists and diversify its economy away from oil.

De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pursued sweeping social reforms to modernise the kingdom, lifting decades-long bans on cinemas and women drivers while allowing gender-mixed concerts and sporting extravaganzas.

- Mass crackdown -

Although the reforms are wildly popular among Saudi Arabia's mainly young population, they risk angering religious hardliners in the deeply conservative nation.

Earlier this year, campaigners reported the arrest of religious scholar Omar al-Muqbil after he criticised the General Entertainment Authority (GEA) for "erasing Saudi society's original identity".

Separately, Riyadh police said they arrested 88 people in various harassment cases over the past week, in the first such mass crackdown after several women complained on social media that they were harassed at the MDL Beast music festival in the Saudi capital earlier this month.

The electronic music festival, which drew tens of thousands of fans, was billed by organisers as the biggest ever to be hosted in the kingdom.

The reforms come as the OPEC kingpin, hit hard by low oil prices, seeks to boost domestic spending and diversify its economy.

Saudis currently splurge billions of dollars annually to see films and visit amusement parks in neighbouring tourist hubs like Dubai and Bahrain.

Critics say loosening social strictures is also a diversionary tactic to make citizens more acquiescent and blunt public frustration over an economic downturn and an intensifying crackdown on dissent.

The kingdom has also faced intense international scrutiny over its human rights record since last year's killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the country's consulate in Istanbul.

And nearly a dozen women activists were arrested for demanding the right to drive, just weeks before the kingdom lifted the ban on female motorists last year.

In July, American rapper Nicki Minaj pulled out of a concert in Saudi Arabia in what she described as a show of support for women's and gay rights in the kingdom.

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