06/26/2007, 00.00
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One acquittal and more charges against Saudi religious police

Media coverage of cases involving illegal activities by the Mutawwa'în seems to indicate that something is happening to hitherto unchecked power of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – Something is happening around the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the powerful Saudi religious police, even though someone who is not an official member of the Commission is being held responsible for the death in custody of a Saudi man last month.

The Governorate of Riyadh decided in fact to charge a civilian in the death of Sulaiman al-Huraisi, whose apartment was raided because of the suspected presence of alcohol. Alcohol was found and nine people arrested, five of whom were eventually released. But Mr al-Huraisi died from beatings according to his father who filed a lawsuit.

The National Society for Human Rights, Saudi Arabia’s nongovernmental human rights body, has received an official complaint from other al-Huraisi’s family members, alleging that they were “threatened” and subjected to “psychological pressure” to give statements.

Even though the Commission was formally cleared by the Governatorate of Riyadh according to a statement released by the Saudi Press Agency, it also acknowledged that it allowed non official members to work side by side with its official agents.

The publicity over the affair, which has not yet been concluded, seems to confirm that the Commission is under pressure as a result of mounting charges of abuse of authority. Until now it had never before come under the scrutiny of the legal system.

Arab News further reported that other Mutawwa'în agents were brought up before a court in Tabuk, a city in the north of the kingdom. There three Commission members detained a man, Ahmed Al-Bulawi, after they saw a woman getting into his car at an amusement park. Both the man and woman were arrested on suspicion of being in a state of illegal seclusion (when a man is alone with an unrelated woman). Women are allowed to get into cars owned only by close relatives or driven by their family’s chauffeur. Whilst at the detention (virtue) centre, the man collapsed and died.

The same pro-government paper also reported other illegal activities by the Mutawwa'în. Other Saudi papers have done the same.

In an article title “Abuse of Authority,” the paper listed a series of past incidents in which the Commission was involved.

In one case, three agents arrested a couple accusing them of not being married. They beat the husband and then followed and physically attacked the woman as she tried to escape.

Then there was the case involving a mother with her 22-year-old daughter, her 12-year-old son and a maid. Two members of the commission attacked their car, beat the driver, threw him out of the car and then drove the car to an isolated area. They then left the women alone in the car and accused one of the women of being a sinner and a wrongdoer. They locked them in the car which the daughter tried to drive (which women are not allowed to do) but the car became stuck in sand. The mother filed a lawsuit against the Commission but the judge at the preliminary court in Riyadh issued a sentence saying that although the Commission members had made a mistake, they should not be punished.

Always in the capital, 17-yaer-old Muhammad Shaheen was in a toy store with his parents and three sisters when commission members accused him of flirting with girls. They beat him, got into a fight with his family and swore at his mother. The police intervened and Shaheen was moved to the emergency room at King Khaled Hospital. The Tabuk police launched an official investigation into the incident.

As a result of the rising number of reported lawsuits, the Mutawwa'în have started to show respect for the law, something that they had not done before.

About two weeks ago, Commission President Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Ghaith responded to the charges of illegal behaviour by his agents by announcing that a “Department of Rules and Regulations” would be set up to assist commission members if they were unsure of something or needed legal advice.

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