(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers issued a sweeping new regulation on April 13, 2016, curtailing the powers of the country’s religious police. The council removed the authority of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or religious police, to arrest, pursue, or request documents or ID cards from suspects.
The new regulation will also require the religious police to clearly display official ID cards containing their name, position, branch, and official work hours. They would still have the authority to enforce sex segregation rules in public spaces.
“This is a positive move for Saudi citizens and residents who have suffered years of harassment and abuse by the religious police,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “The authorities should go further and strip the religious police of the power to enforce sex segregation rules.”
The move to restrict religious police powers comes after several high profile incidents reported by local media and videos posted to social networking sites in which members are shown assaulting and harassing people.
The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is a governmental organization under the purview of the prime minister, a position held by the Saudi king. It is responsible for policing morality issues such a public dress, mixing of the sexes, drugs, allegations of “sorcery and witchcraft,” and insults to religion.
The new regulation goes beyond a 2013 reform, which allowed members to detain suspects only “with the support of accompanying policemen.” Three Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch, however, that in practice members of the group still arrest people without police on the scene.
Under the new regulation, “heads of centers and members of the [religious police] are not to arrest people, restrain them, chase them, request their documents, confirm their identities, or follow them…” (Article 7.2). The regulation states that powers for “procedures of criminal or administrative arrest, restraint, following, pursuit, detention, interrogation, confirmation of identity, and investigation” are restricted solely to the regular police and General Administration for Combatting Drugs.
The king must now pass an implementing regulation to define in detail the responsibilities of the religious police. King Salman should remove the group’s authority to enforce sex segregation rules, which have a disproportionately negative impact on women, Human Rights Watch said.
In the most recent high-profile incident involving the religious police, in February, they stopped two young women on a street in Riyadh and told them to cover their faces. Arab News reported that the religious police then ordered the young women to get into their car, but they refused. While one of the women escaped into the nearby Nakheel Mall, the religious police chased her friend onto the main road and, as videos posted on social networking sites shows, shoved and dragged the young woman on the ground. A security officer at the mall told Arab News that the men chased her for about a half hour before she fell.
On August 29, 2014, three members of the group attacked a British man and his Saudi wife in the parking lot of a Riyadh mall, Arab News reported. A video of the incident showed a member of the religious police jumping on the British man’s back. While a police patrol responded to the couple’s call for help, they left without intervening, and it was only after British Embassy security officers arrived that the religious police members left, Arab News said.
Members have also been involved in high-speed car chases that ended in deaths and injuries. In one 2012 incident, an investigative committee found that members of the group and of the police caused the death of a Saudi man and serious injuries to his wife and two children after they crashed while religious police pursued them in a high-speed car chase in Baha Province. In a 2013 incident, two brothers died following car chase in Riyadh involving the religious police. Arab News reported that as the members chased the brothers, they ran a traffic light and hit a taxi and fence, then plunged from an overpass onto a busy street below.
“Saudi Arabia has taken a step that could rein in longstanding religious police abuses, but authorities must enforce the new regulations for them to have any meaning,” Whitson said.