An Unprecedented Uproar Over Saudi Religious Police

Jiddah, Saudi Arabia - Three members of Saudi Arabia's religious police will stand trial this week for their involvement in the death of a man in their custody, an unprecedented action against the powerful enforcers of the country's strict moral code.

The death, the second in the custody of the religious police in the past month, has triggered calls for a reevaluation of the force's role and responsibilities, and generated a media uproar -- a first in a country where criticism of the religious establishment had until recently been off-limits.

"Things have gotten so out of hand that the commission has taken on the roles of policeman, judge and jury. Its employees exercise the right to suspect, accuse, detain and punish on the spot while they also enjoy immunity from any kind of accountability or questioning," Arab News columnist Abeer Mishkhas wrote this week.

The two cases, which involve a man accused of socializing with an unrelated woman in the northern city of Tabuk and an alleged alcohol peddler in the capital, Riyadh, are still under investigation. Both men died after being detained by the religious police force, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Authorities are also investigating an incident in which an Indonesian maid in Jiddah jumped to her death from the window of a fourth-floor apartment when it was raided by the commission, the beating of a university student in the southern city of Najran who allegedly had inappropriate photos in his cellphone, and the arrest of two brothers accused of alcohol possession.

Newspapers have splashed stories about the commission on their front pages since the first death. The criticism has roused the commission, long known for being aloof and dismissive of the press, and its members have for the first time given almost weekly briefings to the news media.

Last week, commission chief Ibrahim al-Ghaith denied claims by a human rights group, the National Society for Human Rights, that commission members obtained confessions by force. He also announced the establishment of a legal department to advise commission members. Ghaith had earlier said that the commission was studying ways to improve the conduct of members in the field and that stricter rules for arrests and raids would be put in place.

Saudi Arabia's powerful interior minister, Prince Nayef, played down the commission's role in the two deaths.

"It's two cases, no more, no less," he said at a news conference Sunday. "And initial investigations prove that the commission did not do anything to cause their deaths. But the courts will decide on the matter according to the investigation. . . . I'm feeling that there are those who are fishing for any mistakes or any negative actions from the commission and trying to magnify them, and that is not appropriate."

The commission is the enforcement arm of Saudi Arabia's official religious establishment, which imposes the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, named after its 18th-century founder, Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab. The commission's mandate is based on the Koranic verse, "And from among you there should be a party who invite to good and enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong, and these it is that shall be successful."

The commission has about 500 offices across the kingdom and employs about 10,000 people. Members who work in the field wear badges but no special uniforms. As signs of piety, they sport scraggly beards and red-and-white checkered head scarves without black cords to hold them down. Their traditional white robes fall slightly above their ankles.

They patrol the streets to make sure shops are closed during prayer times, unrelated men and women do not mingle, and women are properly covered. Their mandate also includes enforcing a ban on prostitution, pornography and the consumption or sale of alcohol.

Until last year, commission members arrested, detained and interrogated those suspected of moral infractions. But public complaints led the Interior Ministry to issue a decree limiting the commission's powers to arrests only. The commission was to hand over suspects to police, who would decide whether to refer them to the prosecutor.

The Wahhabi establishment's influence has waned over the past five years, and people have been allowed greater personal freedoms, though still limited by Western standards. Wahhabis were first criticized by former Wahhabis who said the ideology's focus on enmity toward those who do not believe in the strict creed was partly responsible for violent militancy inside and outside the kingdom.

But the establishment retains tremendous clout. Newspaper editors and writers have been fired or banned from writing for criticizing the Wahhabi ideology, and many remain wary about voicing an opinion about the commission.

"People hesitate to criticize the commission because they're afraid they'll be viewed as criticizing religion," said Sabria Jawhar, the Jiddah bureau chief of the English-language Saudi Gazette. "Having a commission is part of our religion."

Saad al-Sowayan, a professor of folklore and anthropology at King Saud University in Riyadh, said Saudis have lived in fear of the commission for decades but have finally started to speak out against it.

"The signs are that the heyday of the Control Squad is perhaps over," Sowayan wrote in a recent article on the London-based Web site "Slowly but increasingly, irate Saudis are literally fighting back. Local newspapers have reported that within the last two years, physical attacks by the public against the Squad have been on the rise."

But Adel al-Toraifi, a political analyst, said the commission would remain powerful. "I don't think the government will change the powers of the commission, because they believe it is deeply supported by most of Saudi society. For a majority of Saudis, the commission is doing God's work and constitutes a part of their faith," Toraifi said.

A government statement published in newspapers Thursday said three commission members would face a trial Saturday in the death of Ahmad al-Bluwi, 50, a former border patrol guard who was arrested June 1 on suspicion that he had invited a woman who was not related to him into his car. He died several hours later in the commission's office.

On May 23, more than a dozen commission members raided the home of Salman al-Huraisi, 28. The commission said it found large amounts of alcohol. The members arrested everyone there, including Huraisi's father, Mohammad, and handcuffed Huraisi and beat him, said Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, who is representing the family.

Commission members continued to beat Huraisi in front of his father at their offices, his brother Ali said. When he fell unconscious, they called an ambulance, but he was already dead, Lahem said.

"People are dying in commission custody now because the commission has been brutally abusing prisoners for years but never held accountable before," Lahem said.

Huraisi's brother Ali said he was not against the commission and respected its work. "The problem is the abuse of power," he said.