Saudi Arabia has set new limitations on the powers of its notorious religious police, charged with ensuring compliance with Islamic morality but often accused of abuses, its chief said on Tuesday.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice “once had much expanded powers, but with the new system... some of these powers, such as interrogating suspects and pressing charges,” will be restricted to the police and public prosecution, Shaikh Abdul Latif Abdel Aziz Al Shaikh told AFP.
The religious police may still arrest those carrying out “flagrant offences such as harassing women, consuming alcohol and drugs, blackmail and the practice of witchcraft,” Shaikh said of the new law approved by the cabinet.
However, the cases of such people will be referred to the police and brought to justice, as the religious police will no longer have the right to determine charges against them, he said.
The religious police will also continue to prevent women from driving, ban public entertainment and force all businesses, from supermarkets to petrol stations, to close for prayers five times a day.
Relatively moderate Al Shaikh, appointed last year, has raised hopes that a more lenient force will ease draconian social constraints in deeply conservative Islamic country.
Two weeks into his post, Al Shaikh banned volunteers from serving in the commission, which enforces the kingdom’s strict Islamic rules.
Later, he went further, prohibiting harassment and threatening “decisive measures against violators.”
In June, Al Shaikh came out strongly against one of his men who ordered a woman to leave a mall because she was wearing nail polish.
The woman had defied the orders as she filmed her argument with the policeman and posted it on YouTube.