Saudi religious police ordered to be ‘kinder, gentler’

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Public outrage has spurred Saudi Arabia to strip powers from its 10,000 religious police and require them to be “kinder and gentler.”

Saudi authorities have stripped the powers of pursuit and arrest from the Haia force, also known as the Mutawa and formerly the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Saudi religious policy can no longer arrest citizens.
Saudi religious policy can no longer arrest citizens.

Under the new rules, officers of the force must “carry out the duties of encouraging virtue and forbidding vice by advising kindly and gently,” the Saudi Press Agency reported on April 12.

“Neither the heads nor members of the Haia are to stop or arrest or chase people or ask for their IDs or follow them – that is considered the jurisdiction of the police or the drug unit,” the regulations say.

Mutawa members are also required to be of “good conduct and reputation” and must clearly display their ID cards, the new rules say.

The Haia is tasked with enforcing Saudi’s strict interpretation of Islam, including segregation of the sexes and ensuring that women cover themselves from head-to-toe when in public. Its members also patrol shops to make sure they are closed during prayers five times daily.

The Saudi public became increasingly critical of the Haia force’s tactics and tensions boiled over in February when members of the force were arrested for allegedly assaulting a young woman outside a Riyadh shopping mall.

In 2013, Mutawa members were arrested after their patrol car crashed into another vehicle during a high-speed chase that left two men dead. Reports at the time said the police were chasing two brothers after they refused to turn down their car radio.

According to Saudi columnist Sajdi Al-Rouqi, the religious police in the past did not hesitate to flog young men in public who did not know the time of prayer.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, a former head of Mecca’s religious police, welcomed the new regulations but said they could have come sooner.

“I believe it’s a very good change” as the Mutawa has an “important message for the people” but some of its members have misunderstood Islam, al-Ghamdi said.