Saudi strips religious HAIA police of arresting powers
Fully veiled Saudi women browse the annual International Book Exhibition in the capital Riyadh on March 2016. (AFP/File)
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Saudi Arabia has stripped its frequently criticised religious police, also known as the Haia force, or the Mutawaa, of their arresting powers, and instructing them to enforce Islamic rules in "kindly and gently".
The changes approved by the Saudi cabinet require religious officers to report violators to police or drug squad officers instead of carrying out arrests. They no longer have the power to detain people, the official Saudi Press Agency said, reporting the changes late 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," the regulations say.
The Mutawaa religious police enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law which includes sexual segregation and women's attire in public. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice were also known to patrol shops to ensure they observed prayers five times daily.
Prior to the new regulations, the religious police were empowered to detain people for alcohol or drugs use or other crimes such as practicing witchcraft.
The Mutawaa religious police have often been a subject of controversy. In February, members were arrested for the assault of a young woman outside a mall in Riyadh, local media reported at the time.