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Saudi religious police ‘can no longer detain people’

“Neither the heads nor members of the Haia [Saudi religious police] are to stop or arrest or chase people or ask for their IDs or follow them,” new regulations approved by the Saudi cabinet say.
Under changes approved by the Saudi cabinet, religious officers will no longer be allowed to detain people. Waseem Obaidi
Under changes approved by the Saudi cabinet, religious officers will no longer be allowed to detain people. Waseem Obaidi

Riyadh // Saudi Arabia has stripped its often-criticised religious police of their powers to arrest, urging them to act “kindly and gently” in enforcing Islamic rules.

Under changes approved by the Saudi cabinet, religious officers will no longer be allowed to detain people. Instead, they must report violators to police or drug squad officers, the official Saudi Press Agency said on Tuesday.

Officers of the Haia force, also known as the Mutawaa, must “carry out the duties of encouraging virtue and forbidding vice by advising kindly and gently” under the new rules, it reported.

“Neither the heads nor members of the Haia are to stop or arrest or chase people or ask for their IDs or follow them – that is considered the jurisdiction of the police or the drug unit,” the regulations said.

Saudi Arabia’s religious police enforce the country’s interpretation of Islamic law including segregation of the sexes, ensuring that women cover themselves from head-to-toe when in public.

Formally known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, its members also patrol shops to make sure they are shuttered during prayers five times daily.

Prior to the new regulations, officers were allowed to arrest people using alcohol or drugs and committing certain other offences including witchcraft.

Their tactics have sometimes been the subject of controversy, most recently in February when members were arrested for allegedly assaulting a young woman outside a Riyadh shopping mall, local media said at the time.

In 2013, religious policemen were arrested after their patrol car crashed into another vehicle during a chase that left two men dead.

Sheikh Ahmed Al Ghamdi, a former head of the holy city of Mecca’s religious police, welcomed the new regulations but said they perhaps could have come sooner.

“I believe it’s a very good change” for the roughly 5,000 Haia members, Sheikh Ghamdi said.

Some of its members have misunderstood Islam which is a “very kind” religion, he said.

Mutawaa members must be of “good conduct and reputation” and must clearly display their identity cards, the new rules say.

A five-member advisory committee will provide suggestions to the Mutawaa president, appointed by King Salman, on holding officers to account for any violations or abuse.

Eman Al Nafjan, a well-known blogger on Saudi society, culture and women’s issues, also praised the changes.

“It’s great. Finally!” she said.

Despite their controversial reputation, the officers do not have a particularly noticeable presence in many parts of the Saudi capital.

In 2013, cabinet removed from religious officers the power to interrogate and press charges.

But it maintained their right to arrest people using alcohol or drugs and committing certain other offences including witchcraft.

Abuses allegedly continued, but Nafjan said it felt like this time would be different.

“I’m very confident because there are so many people that are for these changes,” she said, expressing hope that any rogue officers would be held to account.

There was no immediate comment from the Mutawaa and its website could not be accessed on Wednesday.

In February, Haia chief Abdul Rahman Al Sanad was quoted as denying his agency harasses or punishes people. He said it seeks simply to improve behaviour, Arab News reported.

* Agence France-Presse

Updated: April 13, 2016 04:00 AM

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