02/19/2008, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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Saudi religious police stands by arrest of a woman in a café with male colleague

News that Yara, a businesswoman raised in the United States, was arrested in early February made the headlines across the world. Saudi newspapers also criticised her treatment, but the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice strongly defends the reasons for her detention.

Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the Mutaween (officially the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice), stands by its actions, unmoved by charges made by international human rights organisations and even by Saudi newspapers, quite ready instead to defend its actions and counter criticism in the case of Yara, a mother of three of Jordanian parentage raised in Salt Lake City (United States), who was detained earlier this month.

Married to an important businessman in Jeddah where she and her family have lived for the past eight years, she was in Riyadh on a routine visit where the financial company she works for opened a new bureau.

As a result a power blackout everyone had to leave the premises and found temporary accommodation in a nearby Starbucks Internet café. For the sake of propriety Yara and a male colleague sat in the family area, the only place where unrelated men and women can sit together.

Yet despite all the precautions taken Mutaween agents confronted her, accusing her of being with an unrelated male, and after confiscating her cellphone arrested her and took her to Riyadh’s Malaz Prison.

Strip-searched without much ado, she was forced to fingerprint two confessions.

“They took me into a filthy bathroom, full of water and dirt. They made me take off my clothes and squat and they threw my clothes in this slush and made me put them back on,” she is quoted as saying in the Times online.

Police denied her the right to inform her husband Hatim about her arrest, but it is thanks to his actions and those of some influential political leaders that she was released.

Saudi Arabia’s National Society for Human Rights said that it would vet the case to check out the Commission’s position.

After coming under attack for the incident, a Commission spokesman said that the “Ministry of Labour does not approve mixing of men and women at work places. So it’s both a violation of the country’s law and the Sharia.

The Commission has also threatened to take legal action against editorial writers Al-Alami of the Al-Watan paper, and Abdullah Abou Alsamh of Okaz for backing anti-Islamic and illegal positions when they criticised the Mutaween for Yara’s arrest.

Many women are arrested in Saudi Arabia but their stories do not get the same coverage as Yara’s did. Very few of them are ever heard or freed and for those stuck in prison the nightmare continues.

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