Second Case Brought Against Saudi Religious Police in Death of a Suspect

Jiddah, Saudi Arabia - A member of Saudi Arabia's religious police will face trial for his suspected involvement in the death of a man in custody, authorities said, the second such case against enforcers of the country's strict moral code.

A government statement Tuesday did not name the person implicated in the death last month of 28-year-old Salman al-Huraisi, or say when the defendant would be tried.

The trial marks the second case in which members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice -- the official name of the religious police -- will face charges. The cases represent a turning point for the commission.

"This is the first time that any member of the commission is adjudicated publicly. Maybe members were fired or reprimanded by government officials before, but this is the first time it's done in public and not swept under the rug," said Bassim Alim, a human rights lawyer. "This is a confirmation that the commission is not above and beyond the law."

Huraisi died at the commission's offices in Riyadh following a raid of his home, where religious police said they had found large quantities of alcohol, banned in this conservative kingdom. Huraisi's father, arrested during the raid, said police had beaten his son to death in front of him.

Three other members of the religious police are being tried for their alleged role in the death of a man in their custody this month in the northern city of Tabuk. Ahmad al-Bluwi, 50, a former border patrol guard, died several hours after being arrested for inviting a woman not closely related to him into his car. Saudi Arabia bans unrelated men and women from mingling, and forces women to cover up in public.

The kingdom's religious police enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law. With 10,000 members in almost 500 offices across the country, they make sure restaurants and stores are closed during prayer times and enforce bans on prostitution, consumption or sale of alcohol, and pornography.

The force enjoys wide support among Saudi conservatives, who fear the encroachment of Western values and feel the kingdom's Islamic mores would erode without it. The commission's mandate is based on a Koranic ruling.

But religious police have also long been resented for their zealous involvement in people's private affairs and the free rein they enjoyed until recently.

Newspapers have splashed stories about the commission on their front pages for more than a month, and many writers have called for an overhaul of the organization. Some have suggested that it be abolished and that regular law enforcement agencies take over its duties.