Monday, July 2, 2007

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — After the car stopped outside a Riyadh amusement park, two bearded men dragged the driver from behind the wheel and took the three women on a wild ride of more than an hour, bouncing over sidewalks and finally abandoning them on a darkened street.

The women at first thought they had been kidnapped by terrorists. But the two men said instead that they were religious police.

It might have gone down as just one more excess of zealousness by the forces charged with upholding Islamic modesty, except that Umm Faisal, the oldest of the three women, did something that is thought to be unprecedented in Saudi Arabia: She went to court.

Today, four years after the incident, the latest chapter of the legal battle being waged by this 50-year-old mother of five reopens before Riyadh’s Grievances Court, which handles damages suits for abuses by government and public figures.

The unusual publicity surrounding Umm Faisal’s story comes after two Saudi men died while in religious police custody — one arrested for reportedly consuming alcohol, another for being alone with a woman not of his family.

Last week, a trial opened against three religious police officers and a fourth man in the death of Ahmed al-Bulaiwi, the man detained for being alone with a woman. Relatives demanded the death penalty against the defendants.

Taken together, the cases could undermine the authority of the force’s employer, the powerful, independent body called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Since the commission’s creation more than 60 years ago, there has been no known public legal action taken against its members, despite complaints they occasionally overstep their boundaries. The prevailing view tends to be that whatever their faults, they are acting in Islam’s name to defend morality.

But things may be changing.

The National Society for Human Rights, a nongovernmental body, has issued a report which, according to the daily Arab News, charges the religious police with abusive language, unsubstantiated accusations, humiliation of people during interrogation, beatings, unnecessary body searches, forced entry into private homes and coerced confessions.

The report, as well as the media coverage of the cases and editorials calling for the commission’s reform, suggest the government may act to regulate the force.

Another setback for the commission came in the appointed Consultative Council, the nearest thing to a parliament in Saudi Arabia. It rejected proposals to build more commission centers and give members a 20-percent salary raise. While the council’s actions are not binding, they reflect a general desire to curb the religious police’s power.

“Society has developed and the relationship of other governmental bodies with the people has developed and become more human,” said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi journalist. “Yet the commission has not changed.”

Several news outlets have conducted informal surveys asking Saudis whether the commission should be dissolved. Some have said yes. The polls may be unscientific, but simply asking the question is significant.

Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the commission’s head, dismissed the polls, saying the commission is “one of the oldest governmental agencies … and not a cooperative that can be eliminated because of individual mistakes,” according to Al Jazeera.

The Saudi government is reluctant to tamper with religious establishments for fear of angering Muslim hard-liners and weakening its credentials as custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines.

The hard-line impulse is illustrated by a recent request from 14 faculty members of King Saud University’s medical school to ban male students from treating women and vice versa, on the grounds that handling bodies of the other sex is un-Islamic.

Umm Faisal — her full name is withheld in reports on the case — says she, her 21-year-old daughter and her Indonesian maid went to pick up her two teenage sons from the amusement park in the family’s new Chevrolet Caprice.

“I kept asking the men, ‘Are you terrorists?’ They finally said they were members of the commission,” she said. “When I asked what they wanted, they called me names, including adulteress.”

Umm Faisal said the men drove so fast that smoke came out of the car.

The men stopped the car, called their friends and asked them to pick them up. The women, who don’t know how to drive (and can’t under Saudi law), were left to the mercies of passers-by.

Umm Faisal lodged a complaint. She said the commission members claimed they were “indecently covered” because her daughter’s veil didn’t cover her eyes.

In early 2004, she filed suit at Riyadh’s General Court, but says several judges pressed her to drop it and late last year the case was dismissed.

She then turned to the Grievances Court, which fined one official $540 for mistreating the women and acquitted the other.

Umm Faisal isn’t satisfied, and her appeal opens before the court today.

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