Couple die while 'fleeing' Saudi religious cops

/ Source: The Associated Press

Two members of the Saudi Arabia's powerful religious police are being questioned after a traffic accident in which a man and a woman burned to death, an official said Monday.

The Okaz newspaper said the couple were fleeing from the special police, whose duties include ensuring that unrelated men and women do not mix in public, when the crash occurred.

Sheik Sulaiman al-Oneizi, a senior official at the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which runs the religious police, said there was no indication so far that the two commission members had been chasing the couple.

Instead, the two were on a routine patrol near the northern town of Tabuk, when the couple's sedan crashed into a trailer truck Sunday, al-Oneizi told The Associated Press. "The patrol happened to be on that road at the time," said al-Oneizi, Tabuk head of the commission's branch.

He said the two agents were being questioned over the circumstances of the accident as part of "procedural measures."

Fiery collision
The Okaz report said, quoting unnamed witnesses from the scene, the couple in the car were fleeing the religious police when they rammed into the truck and their car burst into flames. The paper said the truck driver, an Egyptian, survived the accident.

The commission is charged with enforcing Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic lifestyle. They patrol public places to make sure women are covered and not wearing makeup, the sexes don't mingle, shops close five times a day for prayers and men go to the mosque and worship.

Informally known as the muttawa, the commission's officers don't wear uniforms but are recognizable by their long beards and their robes, shorter than the ones normally worn by Saudi men. They also shun the black cord that circles a male headdress.

While many Saudis say they support the idea of having the commission because its mandate is based on several verses in the Quran, Islam's holy book, they also say its members exploit their broad mandate to interfere in people's lives.

U.S. woman held over Starbucks visit
In recent years, there have been calls to reform the commission, which has the same powers as that of a ministry.

A number of cases involving the religious police have provoked a public outcry, including that of the American wife of a Saudi who was detained for several hours for sitting in Starbucks with a male colleague.

Last year, members of the religious police were put on trial — and subsequently acquitted — in two separate cases involving the death of two men in commission custody.