Religious police apologise for controversial kiss arrest
Wael Mahdi, Foreign Correspondent
* Last Updated: April 14. 2009 9:30AM UAE / April 14. 2009 5:30AM GMT
Jeddah // Saudi Arabia’s religious police have been forced to issue a rare apology after a member of one of the country’s most influential tribes said he was beaten by police for allegedly kissing his wife in public.
Mohammed al Qahtani, of the Qahtan tribe – the largest in Saudi Arabia – had threatened to present his case to King Abdullah after the police spokesman issued a statement eight days ago accusing Mr al Qahtani of lying about the incident.
Damaging the reputation of a tribal member in Saudi is considered an insult to the entire tribe, and releasing personal information of those involved in the arrest is something rarely done by the religious police.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which runs the religious police, last week replaced Ahmad al Jardan as spokesman, suspended all of the officers involved in the arrest two weeks ago and promised to launch an investigation.
“The religious police violated the rights of al Qahtani as a citizen and the police and the whole of Saudi society must restore them, otherwise he will head to his tribe,” said Mohammed al Zulfah, a former member of the Shoura Council.
The decision by the religious police to issue a public apology was viewed as a climbdown by one of the country’s most powerful institutions.
The apology is the first public act by the newly appointed head of the religious police, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Humane, who replaced the more conservative head, Sheikh Ibrahim al Ghaith, in February following a government reshuffle.
“The apology is a triumph for society over an apparatus that sees itself as above the law and above suspicion,” Mr al Zulfah said.
Adhwan al Ahmari, a Saudi journalist, said the religious police hoped the apology and the removal of Mr al Jardan would appease the media, which they feared could escalate the situation.
But Mr al Ahmari said the suspension of the policemen involved in the arrest was not serious enough.
“Suspending the policemen is not enough and I can’t take the police’s actions seriously until I see real punishments,” he said.
Mr al Qahtani told the Saudi press he was dragged away from a mall in Riyadh, where he had dropped off his wife, and was beaten. However, Mr al Jardan posted a statement on the religious police website eight days ago that disputed those claims and said the matter was handled gently.
Mr al Jardan said the police had been notified that a couple was seen kissing in a car in the car park at one of the malls. When they arrived, they found Mr al Qahtani, who admitted to kissing a woman but said she was his wife. The policemen asked her to verify his statement. Afterwards, the couple was released after they were told to respect the public morality.
A week ago, Mr al Jardan retracted his statement, saying it was inaccurate and that an official investigation was still ongoing. He also said his statement did not represent the official view of the religious police and apologised on their behalf.
Mr al Qahtani said he had postponed any legal action after he received a personal assurance from the head of the religious police that there would be a full investigation.
It is not the first time that arrests carried out by the religious police have angered the public. Some cases have involved dangerous car chases that ended in the death of the suspect.
Mr al Zulfah said the police would face more pressure from tribes and other members of society if they continued to make humiliating arrests.
“The religious police must protect itself from society,” Mr al Zulfah said. He said the religious police think they are above the law, and that without any avenue through which to press charges, society had no option but to resort to tribal pressure.
The police are often accused of restricting intellectual development in the kingdom and this was highlighted when two novelists were arrested at a Riyadh book fair last month.
Khalid al Mahameed, the cultural affairs editor at the Al Watan daily, said the religious police would continue to consider itself above the law until their influence was curbed.
“To start, the public must have the authority to file legal cases against the religious police whenever there are violations of individuals’ rights,” Mr al Mahameed said.