Saudi Arabia's vice police is planning to set up a human-rights division among its ranks, supposedly in order to improve its image.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the kingdom's religious police, has come under fire over the past few years for their strict and sometimes brutal clamp-downs on what is perceived as un-Islamic behavior, fueling international criticism of Saudi Arabia's human-rights record.
The organization enforces religious rules such as a ban on men and women mixing, Islamic dress code, prayer attendance and the prohibition on the possession and consumption of alcohol.Â
The Saudi Al-Watan reported that the commission was planning to restructure itself. A spokesman for the commission, 'Abd Al-Muhsin Al-Qafari, said the features of the restructured commission would include restructuring the legal administration and creating new units, among them one that will deal with human rights.
This new unit will begin operating shortly under the direct supervision of the commission's director and it will deal with human rights "in accord with just Islamic principles and international rights treaties."
Wajiha Al-Huweidar, a Saudi human-rights activist, said the move was nothing short of hypocritical. "Since when is interfering in people's private lives part of the human-rights agenda?" she asked The Media Line rhetorically. "It reflects what they do. They harass people all year long and during holidays they give away candy to people."
"The religious police know very well that most Saudis want to see them disappear from streets and public places, because they only represent aggressiveness and oppression," Al-Huweidar said. "I think the Saudi government has realized that its reputation is damaged worldwide and its image is ruined among Saudis, so now they are trying to beautify this repressive institution by using a new sloganâ€¦ The religious police have to understand their time is over and they have to go."
Other human-rights activists welcomed the idea. "We think this is a good thing and an appropriate step," Muflih Al-Qahtani, president of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights, told The Media Line. The organization was created with the official approval of the late King Fahd, and some suggest the organization is not completely free to criticize the authorities due to the close relationship of some of its members to the government.
"We hope this unit will play an active role in spreading the culture of human rights and work on protecting people from any violations they are exposed to," Al-Qahtani said. "It should be noted that the recent changes in the way the members of the commission have dealt with issues, and their efforts to become closer to the different social levels, indicates a desire to protect rights."
The decision to set up the human-rights unit coincides with several cases for which Saudi religious authorities are coming under scrutiny from human-rights organizations. A 23-year-old woman was sentenced on Saturday to a year in prison and to 100 lashes after she was gang-raped.
The court in Jeddah accused her of adultery, according to a report in the Saudi Okaz, and found her guilty of trying to abort the baby, since she was pregnant as a result of the rape. She will reportedly be lashed after delivering the baby.
Similar stories in the past have drawn criticism from human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International.
The Al-Watan Web site carried several angry and surprised responses to the decision to set up a human-rights division within the commission. Â
"What about the commission's role in fighting deviant terrorist ideology, or is that not considered a vice?" asked Abdallah. "Perhaps the term 'vice' refers only to pants, burqas and hair that shows beneath the hijab?"
"This is the best joke in history," wrote A-Salihi. "The commission and human rights? How can two opposites sit together! Get real. The commission and its activities go completely against human rights and freedom."
Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law known as Wahhabism.Â Earlier this year Saudi King 'Abdallah Bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz initiated sweeping reforms which included firing the head of the religious police. It is thought that the reforms were an effort to moderate the country's leadership and present to the West a more toned-down image of the Saudi kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is an ally of the United States in its war on terror, but it has come under international pressure because of its strict religious practices.
Restrictions in the kingdom are particularly harsh for women, who are banned from driving and cannot perform most tasks outside the house without being accompanied by a male guardian, usually a husband, a father or a close family member.