Saudi Arabia urges religious police to ‘gently’ enforce Islamic laws

© Reuters
Saudi Arabia has stripped its religious police of their powers to arrest, instead urging them to “kindly and gently” enforce Islamic rules, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

Officers of the Haia force, also known as the Mutawaa, must “carry out the duties of encouraging virtue and forbidding vice by advising kindly and gently under the new rules,” the agency reported on Tuesday.

“Neither the heads nor members of the Haia are to stop or arrest or chase people or ask for their IDs or follow them – that is considered the jurisdiction of the police or the drug unit,” said the regulations, which were approved by the Saudi cabinet on Monday.

Religious police officers will also be required to display clear identification showing their names, posts, jurisdictions, and official working hours.

Formally known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Saudi Arabia's religious police enforce the country's strict interpretation of Islamic law. This includes enforcing segregation of the sexes and ensuring that women cover themselves head-to-toe when in public.

Religious police also patrol shops to make sure they are shuttered during prayer five times a day.

Previously, the Haia force could arrest people who had been found to be using alcohol or drugs, or committing certain other offenses.

The force has frequently been criticized for its actions, most recently in February when some of its members were arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman outside a shopping mall in Riyadh. In 2013, two religious policemen were arrested after their patrol car crashed into another car during a chase which left two people dead.