Policing the religious police in Saudi Arabia


Khalid Alnowaiser
Recently, the Saudi government appointed a new president for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice who is known to be a more open-minded and progressive thinker.

However, the problem is not so much with the individuals on the commission but with the institution itself and how it operates.

For example, its executive bylaws in many respects are vague and have allowed some of its members to violate basic human rights, including in some cases the physical and verbal abuse of Saudi citizens.

Unfortunately, the commission’s executive bylaws outlined its powers and functions in only a general way, allowing too much license in how its mission was to be achieved.

As a result, this has led to the violations that are committed by the commission’s members. Indeed, the commission seems to exercise its power in excess of proper limitations and in violation of individual freedom. But let me be clear: I am not talking about the ritual of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stated in the Qur’an which must be respected and followed by all Muslims, but about the unacceptable activities of the commission’s members.
Those acting on behalf of the commission have repeatedly shown that they do not respect the people’s right of privacy, and they engage in practices that are objectionable such as chasing and assaulting people and forcing segregation between men and women.

The commission’s executive bylaws contain some provisions that fail to consider human rights issues that are acknowledged around the world. For example, commission members, pursuant to Article 13 of the executive bylaws, may interfere with a person’s private property rights, which clearly violates Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the first and second paragraphs of Article 14 of the Arab Charter On Human Rights of 2004.

Further, the commission’s practice ignores the international covenants of human rights regarding the guarantees of the accused during investigation, as according to Article 22 of the commission’s executive bylaws, the latter may investigate without the presence of the guarantees set forth in the Law of Criminal Procedure.

This certainly violates Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 13 of the Arab Charter On Human Rights. Furthermore, the commission’s members use force during investigation and inspection, which is against not only international human rights treaties but also the regulations of the Kingdom.

In order to protect the basic rights of citizens, the commission needs to be reformed as soon as possible. Merely hoping that its leadership will be more progressive does nothing to correct the underlying problem, which is the commission’s interference with individual liberties. To that end, the government should consider the following changes:

1. The commission’s executive bylaws must be amended to preserve the rights and dignity of people and to ensure that no one is entitled to intervene or harm the personal freedom of Saudi citizens. If someone happens to see a vice, the executive and judiciary authorities shall be the sole recourse as is the case in all civilized countries. The commission’s guardianship on the Saudi society must stop.

2. The commission should cease to have any jurisdiction whatsoever over Saudi women and simply allow them to live their normal lives as is the case throughout the world. When one-half of the country’s population is female and yet only 14 percent of women are in the Saudi workforce, one can only conclude that attitudes engendered by the commission have contributed to the restriction of their personal freedom.

3. The commission should confine its activities to assisting official authorities in identifying and arresting drug dealers, smugglers, bandits and helping all those affected by floods, rain and fires. This will do more to benefit Saudi society than chasing people and seeking to control their personal lives.

4. Finally, it may be more useful to train the commission’s members to carry out their tasks through the Internet instead of allowing them to take to the streets and harass people. In the past, this was their only option due to the absence of such advanced technology, but now the situation is completely different, and what can be achieved through the Internet is more effective than all other methods.

I am realistic and understand that the government is unlikely to abolish the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, but I sincerely hope, out of my concern for our country and its future, that reforms can be immediately undertaken to protect our citizens. Human rights and personal freedoms of law-abiding individuals are sacred and should never be violated by anyone. We need prompt action to address this very serious problem!

(The writer is a columist and political commentator. This article first appeared in Arab News on Feb 12, 2012)

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