Saudi religious police see their powers curtailed

Sunday 17/04/2016
Members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, attend a training course in Riyadh.

London - Saudi Arabia’s religious po­lice have been formally barred from pursuing and detaining people in what is perhaps the biggest curtail­ment of the group’s privileges.
Officially known as the Commit­tee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or just Hai’a (Arabic for “committee”), the group traditionally patrolled Saudi cities looking for what its members per­ceived as violations of Islamic law. Group members often overstepped their “advisory” role and were viewed by many as routinely violat­ing people’s civil liberties, including arrests and demanding individuals show identification.
New guidelines, however, state that Hai’a will no longer be allowed to pursue people, demand to see their identification or arrest them, emphasising that that role belongs to police and drug enforcement of­ficials.
Curtailing Hai’a’s powers is part of a larger overhaul of their activities; in essence, redefining and codifying the committee to be more congenial in a modern era. According to new parameters set by the Saudi Coun­cil of Ministers, Hai’a members will need to meet educational and re­ligious qualifications as well as be well-behaved, and have no criminal record or judicial rulings against them prior to joining.
The decree raised the status of the head of Hai’a to ministerial level.
News of the new guidelines set social media abuzz in Saudi Arabia. Hashtags for and against the new laws flooded Twitter, with the ma­jority in support of the measures.
Defending the directives, Saudi media personality Abdullatif al- Sheikh wrote on his account: “This is the opinion of the council of sen­ior scholars on this subject and who among us adds to their opinion is not one of us.”
A Saudi female user with the han­dle @nada_2662 wrote: “Normal, honourable and free people are ob­viously in favour of the resolution because they don’t perceive them­selves as animals needing… a stick to go the right way!”
A user named Abu Saud, who is against the new measures, said: “The people want to expand the committee’s powers and not cur­tail them.” A Saudi male under the handle of @secular_forever posted: “The people are in favour of abol­ishing the entire body itself and not just its functions.”
Hai’a has long been a source of controversy in Saudi Arabia, with many accusing its members of overstepping boundaries. During the reign of King Abdullah bin Ab­dulaziz Al Saud, Hai’a members were forced into training courses to learn to how better interact with people. The king fired the head of the commission in 2012, replacing him with a more moderate chief.
However, sporadic reports of abuse continued. In 2013, a car chase resulted in a crash, killing two young people who were being pur­sued by Hai’a members. In Febru­ary, group members were arrested for allegedly assaulting a young woman outside a Riyadh shopping mall, local media reported.
With the ascension to the throne of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is known to have strong ties to both the conservative com­munity and the intellectual elite, it was thought that an era of em­powerment was to come for Hai’a’. There were also fears that royal de­crees in support of women’s rights would not be followed through or would be reversed.
However, in late 2015, 20 women candidates captured municipal council seats in the first election to include female participation, despite calls for a boycott from the religious establishment. Saudi Ara­bia’s first co-educational universi­ty, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), continues operating without trou­ble.
The latest changes were not ex­pected by the Saudi populace and are viewed by many as a historic event. “It’s great. Finally!” blogger Eman al-Nafjan told the Agence France-Presse news agency, adding that she hoped officers disobeying the rulings would be held account­able.
“I’m very confident because there are so many people who are for these changes,” she added.