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Saudi religious police under scrutiny

Heavy-handed behavior by Saudi Arabia's Islamic religious police, including an incident where a woman was dragged by her hair from a job-training center, is increasingly being criticized.
Mideast Saudi Arabia Religious Police
Saudi women at a gold fair in Riyadh on Saturday. A Saudi human rights group has criticized the kingdom's religious police, saying its members sometimes commit acts that infringe on people's rights.Hassan Ammar / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Visitors to a women's job training center heard terrified screams — and rushed to see an agent of the religious police dragging a woman by her hair down the stairs of the building.

The woman had apparently run for shelter in the center after the religious police caught her alone in a car with a man she is not related to — a violation of Saudi Arabia's strict gender segregation, one of the visitors, Nasreen Qattan, told the Associated Press.

Under that same segregation, the male agent should not have entered the all-women center — yet he still barged in and grabbed the woman.

The incident a week ago in the holy city of Mecca is the sort of heavy-handed behavior by the kingdom's Islamic religious police that many Saudis hoped would end after King Abdullah in February appointed a new chief of the force, billed as a reformer.

But so far, there's been little sign of change, and complaints against the religious police continue. On Monday, the Saudi National Society for Human Rights, an independent group, issued a report with stinging criticism of the force, accusing it of infringing on civil rights and calling for rules to regulate the religious police.

People detained by the religious police have been "interrogated and sometimes assaulted and made to confess under duress to acts they did not commit," the report said, adding that in some cases this has led to deaths in custody.

"In commenting on the incidents, the commission leans toward denying them, belittling their importance or saying they are individual acts," said the report.

Force has nearly free rein
Currently the police, run by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, has nearly free rein to enforce kingdom's strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law. The policemen patrol public places to ensure women are covered and not wearing make up, the sexes don't mingle, shops close five times a day for Muslim prayers and men go to the mosque and worship.

The religious police have long been above criticism. Two years ago, members of the force were charged with causing the deaths of two men and were put on trial — the first ever such prosecution. But eventually Saudi courts dropped charges against the men.

Since then, Saudis have become increasingly vocal in their complaints. Many say they are not opposed to the commission itself but to what they see as the agents' rough methods and their meddling in private lives, such as stopping people to check their cell phones for calls to women or scolding women whose abayas — the black cloaks all women have to wear in public — have embroidery.

New tone promised
The newly appointed commission head, Abdul-Aziz bin Humain, has promised a new tone. Last month, he said the commission will follow the principle of maintaining good faith in people, since "a person is innocent until proved guilty," the Saudi Gazette newspaper reported.

But so far he has not announced any concrete steps to reform the force, and little change has been seen on the streets.

One Riyadh resident, Mohammed al-Kahtani, told AP he has filed a complaint against the commission after he was beaten up by religious police as he dropped off his wife at a mall a week ago. The agents accused him of being with a woman who was not his wife, dragged him into the street and hit him on the face and back, al-Kahtani said.

Earlier this month, prominent Saudi author Abdullah al-Thabet and two other writers were detained at a commission post at Riyadh's book fair because he thanked a female writer who had given him a signed copy of her book.

The religious police agents accused him of committing the sin of addressing an unrelated woman.

Mind-set that rejects change
The commission did not respond to questions faxed to its headquarters in Riyadh about any of the cases.

The recent incidents reflect "a whole mind-set that still rejects change and refuses to submit to the kingdom's sincere desire for change that would benefit the people and the state," al-Thabet said. He said he remains optimistic about the new commission chief but cannot understand his silence over the recent events.

The female author who signed the book, Haleema Muthaffar, said she too has hope in bin Humain. "Reform will take time," she said.

In the past five years, commission agents have received training in how to be more courteous in their job, including a workshop recently on how to deal with diplomats.

But such workshops are "not enough without changing the commission's laws, which give it wide powers," the National Society for Human Rights said in its report Monday, calling for the "powers and authority of the commission members" to be precisely defined.

People detained by the religious police have been "interrogated and sometimes assaulted and made to confess under duress to acts they did not commit," the report said. "In commenting on the incidents, the commission leans toward denying them, belittling their importance or saying they are individual acts."

Rights ignored
The main issue for many Saudis is that agents in the field seem to take matters in their hands without any thought to laws or people's rights.

The seizure of the woman at the Mecca training center raised a storm in Saudi newspapers — as much over the agent's entry into the all-female center as over his treatment of the woman.

Afterwards, when Qattan's husband came to pick her up from the center, she told him what happened. Abid got out of the car to talk to the agent who Qattan pointed out as the one who stormed the place.

"I just wanted to advise him that it is not acceptable for a man to go into a place where our women are present," said Abid, 47.

In a statement, the commission accused Abid of interfering with its work and said it will issue a report on the "facts" of the incident. In the meantime, Qattan, 38, and her husband filed complaints against the commission.