A Saudi court convicted a man and sentenced him to four months in prison and 90 lashes for kissing a woman in a mall, a government-owned daily reported Thursday.
Saudi religious police arrested the man and two women after seeing them on mall cameras "engaging in immoral movements in front of other shoppers," the Al-Yom newspaper said.
The man, who is in his 20s, was seen with a woman "sitting on one of the chairs, exchanging kisses and hugs." It was unclear what the other woman was doing. Neither the man nor the women were identified by name.
The kingdom's powerful religious police, under the control of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, enforce Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam, which prohibits unrelated men and women from mingling.
Zealous officers routinely jail unrelated couples found sitting together in restaurants or coffee shops.
The policemen also patrol public places to ensure women are covered and not wearing makeup; shops are forced in most places to close several times a day for Muslim prayers and men go to the mosque and worship.
Such kissing busts have increased as economic pressures have made it harder for young couples to marry and as the ultraconservative kingdom grapples with a push to relax its strict social mores.Young men often must pay more than $50,000 in dowry and gold before their brides' families will accept marriage — a huge burden in a country where economists put male unemployment at over 20 percent.
But the Saudi establishment remains divided on how far separation rules should go.
King Abdullah has been encouraging change in the oil-rich kingdom since becoming crown prince in 1982, and has intensified his efforts since assuming the thrown in 2005.
Male and female students can study together at the newly opened King Abdullah Science and Technology University, launched by the Saudi monarch last year. Abdullah dismissed a prominent hard-line cleric who criticized the policy.
But in April, the head of the religious police fired the chief of the Mecca branch for suggesting that women and men should be able to mix freely, showing that such reforms have their limits.
The newspaper said the man sentenced for kissing will receive his 90 lashes in three batches, and is banned from malls for two years.