Saudi Religious Police Faces Backlash

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - As the car stopped outside a Riyadh amusement park, two bearded men dragged the driver from the wheel and took the three women on a wild ride of more than an hour, bouncing over sidewalks and finally abandoning them on a darkened street.

The women at first thought they had been kidnapped by terrorists. The two men however, said they were religious police.

It might have gone down as just one more excess of zealousness by the forces charged with upholding Islamic modesty, except that Umm Faisal, the senior of three women, did something that is believed unprecedented in Saudi Arabia: She went to court.

On Monday, four years after the incident, the latest chapter of the legal battle being waged by this 50-year-old mother of five reopens before Riyadh's Grievances Court, which handles damages suits for abuses by government and public figures.

The unusual publicity surrounding Umm Faisal's story comes on top of two cases involving the death in religious police custody of two Saudi men—one arrested for allegedly consuming alcohol, another for being alone with a woman not of his family.

A trial opened Monday against three religious police officers and a fourth man in the death of Ahmed al-Bulaiwi, the man detained for being alone with a woman. Relatives demanded the death penalty against the defendants.

Taken together, the cases threaten to undermine the authority of the force's employer, the powerful, independent body called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Since the commission's creation more than six decades ago, there has been no known public legal action taken against its members despite complaints they occasionally overstep their boundaries. The public view has tended to be that whatever their faults, they are acting in Islam's name to defend morality.

But things may be changing.

The National Society for Human Rights, a nongovernment body, has issued a report which, according to the daily Arab News, levels a string of allegations at the religious police: abusive language, unsubstantiated accusations, humiliation of people during interrogation, beatings, unnecessary body searches, forced entry into private homes and coerced confessions.

The report, as well as the extensive coverage the cases have received and editorials calling for the commission's reform, suggest the government may act to regulate the force.

Another setback for the commission came in the appointed Consultative Council, the nearest thing to a parliament in Saudi Arabia. It rejected proposals to build more commission centers and give its members a 20 percent salary raise. While the council's actions are not binding, they reflect a general desire to curb the religious police's power.

"Society has developed and the relationship of other governmental bodies with the people has developed and become more human," said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi journalist. "Yet the commission has not changed."

"Society in principle doesn't reject the commission," he added. "But the commission's problem is that it doesn't have a proper job description."

Several media outlets have conducted informal surveys asking Saudis whether the commission should be dissolved. Some have said yes. While the polls may be unscientific, simply asking the question is significant.

Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the commission's head, dismissed the polls, saying the commission is "one of the oldest governmental agencies ... and not a cooperative that can be eliminated because of individual mistakes," according to the Al-Jazira newspaper.

The Saudi government is reluctant to tamper with its religious establishments for fear of angering conservatives and weakening its credentials as custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines. The conservative impulse has lately been illustrated by a request from 14 faculty members of King Saud University's medical school to ban male students from treating women and vice versa, on the grounds that handling bodies of the other sex is un-Islamic.

But there are signs the commission is acting to limit the damage to the religious police's reputation. It now has a spokesman and a legal department to guide its members.

Umm Faisal—her full name is withheld in reports on the case—says she, her 21-year-old daughter and her Indonesian maid went to pick up her two teenage sons from the amusement park in the family's new Chevrolet Caprice.

"I kept asking the men, 'Are you terrorists?' They finally said they were members of the commission," she said. "When I asked what they wanted, they called me names, including adulteress."

Umm Faisal said the men drove so fast and badly that smoke came out of the car.

The men stopped the car, called their friends and asked them to pick them up. The women, who don't know how to drive (and can't anyway, under Saudi law), were left to the mercies of passers-by.

Umm Faisal headed to the police to lodge a complaint. "When questioned, the commission members claimed we were indecently covered," because her daughter's veil didn't cover her eyes, she said.

In early 2004 she filed suit at Riyadh's General Court, but says several judges pressed her to drop it and late last year the case was dismissed.

She then turned to the Grievances Court, which fined one official $540 for mistreating the women and acquitted the other.

Umm Faisal isn't satisfied, and her appeal opens before the court on Monday.