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In Saudi Arabia, the Interior Ministry has ordered the controversial religious police to stop detaining or interrogating citizens suspected of violating Islamic law.
This comes amid other changes following the deaths of two men in custody. Human rights advocates hope the shifts mean the government is serious about reigning in the religious police.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Riyadh.
PETER KENYON: Officially titled the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, this squad is known on the streets as the religious police or the Muttawa, literally the volunteers. Its members linger in shopping malls and other public venues looking for violations of the strict Wahhabi code of Islam practiced here. A bit of hair sticking out from a woman's veil or a slightly askew face covering can draw a sharp word, a squat with a stick or worse. The religious beliefs also enforced the kingdom's ban on alcohol.
Attorneys say that proved fatal for 28-year-old Salman al-Huraisi. In May, family members say a Muttawa force stormed Huraisi's family home in Riyadh, arresting him and several others on suspicion of selling and consuming alcohol. After Huraisi's death in custody, the Saudi press said an autopsy report revealed that he'd been beaten including a blow to the head so severe that one of his eyes popped out of its socket.
At least one member of the Muttawa may face charges over that death. And three more are due to stand trial in the case of a man who was detained after religious police saw an unrelated woman getting into his car. Saudi women are not allowed to be seen in public alone with unrelated men. After his arrest, 50-year-old Ahmed al-Bulaiwi collapsed and died. It later emerged that he'd been employed by the woman's family as a driver.
Suddenly, after years of operating with virtual impunity, the religious police were coming under scrutiny.
Mr. KHALED AL-MAEENA (Editor-in-Chief, Arab News): Well, I think there have been two or three cases that really rocks the nation.
KENYON: Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of the English language Arab News, says, under King Abdullah, the Saudi press has grown more comfortable taking on topics that were formerly taboo. And the religious police trials become a hot item.
Mr. AL-MAEENA: So these things came to the forefront. The media wrote about it. People started asking questions. And the idea was who are these people and what steps have been taken to curb their authority.
KENYON: At the moment, what's being done is to start enforcing regulations that have been on the books for some time, regulations that barred the Muttawa from arresting people, holding them at their headquarters, or interrogating them. From now on, according to the Interior Ministry, all suspects must be immediately handed over to the regular police. And there will be spot inspections of religious police facilities to ensure no one's detained there.
Human rights advocates are watching the controversy closely to see if the defendants in these cases receive serious punishment, and perhaps more importantly, to see if this is a sign that the reformist King Abdullah is beginning to move against the conservative Wahhabi clerics and their backers inside the government.
Riyadh writer and academic Khalid Dakhil says the religious police remain well entrenched, but they have been startled to find themselves suddenly in the spotlight.
Professor KHALID AL-DAKHIL (Sociology, King Saud University): This is something new. And this religious police is one of the symbols of the traditional Wahhabi establishment. They are on the defensive. But keep in mind that many in the government are on the side of this police. They are providing them with protection and support.
KENYON: Dakhil says sudden dramatic changes to the religious police system would be out of character for the Saudis. But he wonders if the government may be pondering a new less active role for the force.
Prof. AL-DAKHIL: They want to put a limit to this government's patience. It's a leftover from the past. It's not easy really to get rid of it, at least not soon. But it may be turned into an organization that will simply over say(ph) moral behavior, something like that.
KENYON: Meanwhile, family members and defense attorneys say the families of the two dead men are being pressured and offered inducements to drop the charges. Trial schedules in the cases remain unclear.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Riyadh.
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