May 24, 2006

Saudi Arabia Trims Powers of Morality Police

By Andrew Hammond

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday it had taken measures to limit the power of controversial religious police who hardline clerics say make society more moral but many accuse of interfering in people's lives.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef decreed that public prosecutors would deal with all cases concerning "harassment," stopping the ultraconservative kingdom's unique morality squad from detaining suspects for hours, the state media said.

"The role of the 'authority for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice' ends with apprehending suspected individuals and handing them to the police, who then present them to prosecutors with a report of the incident involved," it said.

The religious police have wide powers in Saudi Arabia, which imposes a strict version of Sunni Islam, to prevent the spread of drugs, alcohol and prostitution as well as unrelated men and women mixing in public.

But a number of cases in recent years have drawn attention to overzealous behavior that provoked rare public criticism in newspapers of the organization, which hardline clerics say is a central element of their Islamic state.

In 2002 at least 14 schoolgirls burned to death after the religious police prevented men who were not relatives from entering the building to rescue them.

The squad is known to hold people in incommunicado detention and in some cases the squad forcibly cuts men's hair for being in their view too long. Unrelated men and women take a risk when meeting in cafes and hotels that they will not be hauled off.

"It's time for these people to stop. There are so many people in jail because of them and so many people's lives have been really destroyed because of them," said a female student, who gave her name as Manal, reacting to the announcement.

Shi'ites say members of the organization sometimes detain members of the minority group until they sign documents renouncing their faith, which the Sunni Wahhabi school of Islam regards as heretical.

"It's a good step to regulate the power of this authority... and consolidate powers with the prosecution office. I think it will help to eliminate some misuse of power," said Jaafar al-Shayeb, a leading Shi'ite who has been a member of delegations to King Abdullah asking for more rights.

"But I wish to see a clear set of charges because that's another problem people face here. Charges for crimes are not clear and we want it clear in law."

Earlier this month the head of the organization announced that members would for the first time be obliged to carry identity cards. That came after newspaper reports of ordinary Saudis staging violent attacks on some religious policemen.

Prince Nayef, a strong supporter of the organization and one of the most powerful royals, has rejected calls to dismantle the force. King Abdullah, who came to power last year, is seen as backing cautious social and political reforms.