Saudi Arabia is curbing the powers of its feared religious police, prohibiting officers from pursuing suspects or making arrests, various news outlets report.
The notorious police force, formally known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, is charged with enforcing the Islamic kingdom’s strict morality rules as dictated by Sharia law.
Members of the morality police will now “have to refer cases to the regular authorities,” reports The Telegraph.
“They can currently intervene in behavior ranging from drug dealing to social issues such as ‘mingling between the sexes’ and women who are not properly veiled,” notes the report. “It also instructs them to be ‘gentle and humane’ in their dealings with the public.”
Saudi Arabia’s large and social-media obsessed younger generations reportedly welcomed the move to rein in the religious police, posting hashtags on Twitter such as “Yes to control of the Commission.”
Also known as muttawa, the morality police have a poor reputation among segments of the Saudi population given that they are controlled locally and do not have to answer to regular police.
Nevertheless, hardline clerics believe the police force is an essential component of enforcing Saudi Arabia’s austere form of Sunni Islam.
Religious police officers are no longer “allowed to pursue, question, request identification from or arrest suspects,” Reuters reports, citing state-controlled Saudi Press Agency (SPA).
SPA indicates that “members must instead report suspected crimes to the police or drug authorities, who will carry out law enforcement actions. Members are now also required to show identity cards while carrying out official duties…”
Under Saudi King Salman, who assumed the throne almost a year ago, the morality police expected to have a “freer hand,” notes The Telegraph.
“Speculation had swirled they could be given greater leeway under King Salman after he sacked a reform-minded religious police chief, a sworn foe of Saudi conservatives, in one of his first decisions after assuming the throne last year,” reports Reuters.
Under the new decree, the president of the religious police became a ministerial level position that requires an appointment by royal decree.
“The squad has come under fire online and in local media over several high-profile cases of car chases resulting in fatal accidents, prompting the commission’s president to ban such pursuits in 2012,” reports Reuters.
“However, a chase the following year killed a member of the Saudi police and put the commission in the spotlight after video from one of the passenger’s phones was posted on social media,” it adds.