5 June 2007 - Financial Times: Saudi religious police face
By Roula Khalaf in London and Andrew England in Cairo
Published: June 4 2007 17:56 | Last updated: June 4 2007
Saudi Arabia’s religious police are under unprecedented
pressure amid accusations that their over-zealous pursuit
of moral compliance includes beating suspects, sometimes
According to Saudi newspapers and human rights defenders,
four cases across the kingdom are under investigation,
following allegations of violence over the past month by
the so-called Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and
Prevention of Vice.
The role of the religious police is at the centre of the
struggle between liberals and conservatives in a country
where the regime derives its legitimacy from its role as
guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites.
The commission acts independently from the regular police
to enforce the conservative kingdom’s moral code, which
includes strict segregation between men and women. Its
mandate, however, is broad and its members often enjoy the
protection of the powerful religious establishment.
Among recent cases is that of a man who was allegedly
beaten to death in the capital, Riyadh, after a raid on
his home on suspicion that he was dealing in alcohol. In
the north-western region of Tabuk, a man died of what the
authorities said was a heart attack while he was detained
by the religious police for apparently letting into his
car a woman who was not a relative (another offence in
Saudi Arabia), His family is asking for an autopsy,
suspecting he had been physically abused.
Last week, a woman fell from the fourth floor of a
building in the Red Sea city of Jeddah as the religious
police were raiding the premises. On Monday the Okaz daily
reported that an investigation had been launched in
Najran, in the south of the country, after a student
alleged he had been beaten by the religious police for
having inappropriate pictures in his wallet.
The cases appear to be part of a pattern of abuses. In its
first report last month, the National Society for Human
Rights, a newly formed government-patronised body,
criticised the behaviour of the religious police, citing
allegations of beatings and a failure to stick by the
rules. “There was a feeling that they were exceeding the
limit, that they were doing things without proper orders
from the government,” one human rights official said.
The official doubted, however, that serious action would
be taken to rein in the mutawa’a, as the religious police
is known in Arabic, pointing out the limited restrictions
imposed after a 2002 fire at a girls’ school that left 14
students dead. Allegations that the mutawa’a had prevented
the girls from leaving the building because they were not
sufficiently covered provoked outrage in the media.
Some Saudi lawyers are calling for an overhaul of the
mandate and the structure of the religious police.
Abdelrahman al-Lahem represents a woman he says
was “kidnapped” for failing to conform to the all-
encompassing black dress code.
“It [the mutawa’a] has not been able to adapt to the
political and legal changes in the country, where there is
more freedom and more rights,” Mr Lahem told the FT. “I’m
hoping the pressure it is now under will create a
groundswell of public opinion in favour of changes,
putting it under the ministry of the interior and defining
its mandate. Now its powers are vast, it can stop you for
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007