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Saudi authorities should hold religious police accountable for their fatal beating of a 28-year-old man in Riyadh on May 23, 2007, Human Rights Watch said today.

Despite eyewitness testimony that four religious police officers fatally beat Salman al-Huraisi, criminal investigators are charging only one volunteer officer in the incident. Meanwhile, Saudi officials have attempted to downplay the religious police’s responsibility for the death, and police are harassing the victim’s family. Al-Huraisi is the second person since May to die in the custody of religious police after a beating.

“The Saudi authorities should ensure that all those responsible for beating Salman al-Huraisi to death are held accountable,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the al-Huraisi investigation is turning into a whitewash.”

On May 23, 2007, more than a dozen religious police stormed the Riyadh home of the al-Huraisi family, apparently without a warrant, in search of alcohol, which is banned in the kingdom. Two family members who were present at the time told Human Rights Watch how four religious police then proceeded to punch and kick Salman, the prime suspect, leaving him barely conscious. After taking Salman and 11 other family members to the religious police offices, the religious police beat him again. When he started coughing blood, an ambulance arrived and took Salman away. The autopsy confirmed that Salman died shortly thereafter from the beatings.

Prosecutors from the interior ministry launched an investigation into the death. According to the Riyadh Governorate, they detained eight members of the religious police, but only brought charges against one volunteer officer. Police also twice detained without charge Huraisi family members present at the beatings. After releasing these family members after one week, religious police rearrested and detained five brothers of Salman al-Huraisi, again without charge, one week later. One of the twice-detained brothers told Human Rights Watch that the religious police attempted to pressure female relatives not to testify about the beatings they had witnessed. Three brothers and one sister remain in detention.

“The authorities should arrest the religious police responsible for al-Huraisi’s fatal beating, not the family members who witnessed it,” said Whitson.

Since the investigation, government officials have attempted to dismiss the culpability of the religious police and to pin responsibility on a volunteer acting outside of their direct authority. On June 16, the interior minister was quoted in the Saudi Arab News as saying that the initial investigation showed religious police were not involved in the killing of al-Huraisi. The religious police denied that the one suspect accused in al-Huraisi’s death was one of their own, according to Qatar’s The Peninsula on June 26. The same day, the daily Okaz reported that the Riyadh Governorate had said it considered the volunteer officer a religious policeman, but not “of those officially empowered to participate in the function of arrests.”

“The prosecution should fully investigate all those who participated in or could have prevented the beating instead of trying to shift the blame,” Whitson said.

Under a 1980 law, the religious police, who answer only to the king, were empowered to arrest, detain and interrogate persons for undefined criminal offenses. Recent governmental actions have sought to constrain the powers of the religious police. On July 2, 2007, Interior Minister Prince Nayef reaffirmed a 1981 royal decree prohibiting the religious police from detaining and interrogating suspects at their centers. And a year earlier, the Saudi government declared that religious police must not detain or interrogate suspects or “violate the sanctity of private homes.” In a December 2006 meeting with Human Rights Watch, the president of the religious police contested that view, saying that religious police can enter private homes if they learn of a serious crime in progress. The minister of justice did not reply to an April 10, 2007 letter from Human Rights Watch asking whether the religious police must produce warrants for arrests and searches, as the 2002 Saudi Law of Criminal Procedure requires.

Al-Huraisi’s death is the second such incident within weeks; 51-year-old Ahmad al-Buluwi died of an apparent heart attack shortly after three religious police detained him for interrogation at their Tabuk center in May 2007. Relatives said that forensic doctors confirmed he was beaten there, according the daily al-Watan of July 13. Three religious policemen face charges from the incident.

“Al-Huraisi and al-Buluwi’s deaths after brutal beatings are stark reminders of the abuses that take place at the hands of religious police,” said Whitson.

Prior to the investigations into al-Huraisi and al-Buluwi’s deaths, there has been no record of courts holding the religious police criminally accountable in numerous cases of arbitrary arrests and mistreatment in detention. In a 2004 case involving reckless behavior by members of the religious police, Riyadh’s Summary Shari’a Court ruled – apparently in the first case of its kind – that religious police could not be held criminally liable for misconduct.

Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government to amend the 1980 law and to list precisely which criminal offenses warrant an arrest by the religious police and the circumstances under which they may arrest, interrogate and detain people. Furthermore, the government should ensure that only law enforcement officials so designated under article 26 of the Law of Criminal Procedure carry out arrests. Article 26 lists the heads of religious police centers, but not volunteers. Religious police should only be permitted to conduct arrests and detentions when carried out in conformity to international standards.

Article 35 of the law obliges law enforcement officers to carry out arrests “only on the basis of an order from the competent authority,” and to “treat [detainees] decently.” While religious police have no authority to mistreat detainees, Saudi Arabia relies on its interpretation of the Islamic Shari’a code to set punishments for crimes, and has not publicized the penalties for arbitrary arrests or mistreating persons in custody. Saudi Arabia is a party to the Convention against Torture, which obliges states parties to “ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law [and that] these offences [are] punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.”

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