On a hot and humid evening two months ago, a dozen police cars rolled up to the simple Riyadh residence of Salman al-Huraisi, a 28-year-old hotel security guard. The policemen stormed into the house, breaking down doors, tearing through personal belongings and crying, "God is great!" Then they arrested al-Huraisi, along with 10 other family members. His alleged crime: consuming and selling beer.
Al-Huraisi's visitors were members of Saudi Arabia's religious police, a 10,000-strong force called the Commission for the Protection of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice. Back at the commission's local headquarters, events took a tragic turn: al-Huraisi died in custody, after allegedly being beaten. According to family lawyer Maher Al-Hamizi, the autopsy report said his skull was split open and an eye dislodged from its socket. Speaking to Time, the dead man's father, Mohammed al-Huraisi, a 73-year-old retired messenger, called for justice for the three commission members who he claims murdered his son. "I knew my son was dead due to the merciless beating," he says in a soft but defiant voice. "I demand that they be executed."
Fueled by the al-Huraisi case and other allegations of abuse, an unprecedented backlash is stirring against Saudi Arabia's feared religious police, or mutaween Saudi slang meaning "pious ones." After years of acting as if it were above the law, the commission, which was established in 1926, now faces the prospect of having its considerable powers curbed. Prosecutors launched a high-profile investigation into al-Huraisi's death, and Saudi media reports say they are preparing to put one commission member on trial for his killing.
Meanwhile, another trial is already under way in the city of Tabuk, where the family of a man who died of an apparent heart attack in the commission's custody is likewise demanding a death sentence for four mutaween allegedly involved in his detention. Ahmed al-Bulawi died after being hauled into a local commission headquarters for being in a car with a woman who was not his close relative; the mutaween apparently acted too hastily, since it turned out that he was employed as the family's driver.
Commission officials have declined to comment while these legal cases are pending, but Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud said in a press conference that "initial investigations prove that the commission did not do anything to cause their deaths." Nayef rebuked the commission's critics, claiming they were "fishing for any mistakes ... and trying to magnify them."
When the deaths of al-Huraisi and al-Bulawi hit the newspapers, Saudis were shocked, yet not entirely surprised. The morality police, whom Saudis sometimes derisively refer to as the "Taliban," are notorious for committing excesses in their fervor for enforcing the Kingdom's puritanical Wahhabi brand of Islam. Typically, squads of mutaween patrol streets and shopping malls, caning shopkeepers who fail to shutter their doors at prayer time, scolding women who allow flesh to show from under their mandatory black gowns, and lecturing adolescent boys caught following or talking to girls. By the commission's reckoning, its members "correct" the behavior of 800,000 people a year.
Frequently, however, the mutaween have gone further: from barring shops from selling roses and teddy bears on Valentine's Day to verbally abusing, physically assaulting or effectively abducting women deemed to be committing sins. Some Saudis, only half jokingly, refer to the mutaween's behavior as "state-sponsored terrorism," on account of the fear that their combination of religious intolerance and violence inspires.
The backlash against the mutaween began with the case of Umm Faisal (her full name hasn't been made public), a 50-year-old Riyadh woman who endured a harrowing evening at the hands of some mutaween after arriving in her car at an amusement park to pick up her sons one night four years ago. Accusing her of indecency, two commission members allegedly ejected her driver, took Umm Faisal, her daughter and an Indonesian maid on a wild ride and eventually crashed her car. Outraged by her treatment, Umm Faisal sued, seeking compensation for damage to her car and for emotional trauma. When a religious court rejected her claims against the mutaween last year, she sued again in a civil-style court, which is scheduled to hear her appeal in September.
Umm Faisal's defiant, one-woman stand is helping spur the unusual public debate about the mutaween's role and actions. Saudi newspapers and blog sites have been filled with reports and commentaries on the subject. A campaign using text messages sent to mobile phones is calling on a million Saudis to declare that "2007 is the year of liberation" from the mutaween. Apparently responding to the discontent, the Shura Council, a quasi-legislative body that advises the monarchy, recently rejected requests to give the commission a 20% pay raise for its members and funds to open additional offices around the country.