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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Saudi religious police face curbs
Men and women walk in the capital Riyadh
The religious police enforce the strict separation of sexes
The government in Saudi Arabia says it is taking steps to curtail the powers of its strict religious police.

In a decree carried by state media, the interior minister said public prosecutors would now handle the cases of those arrested for moral offences.

The force has wide-ranging powers to enforce the moral codes associated with the kingdom's version of Sunni Islam.

Some Saudis accuse the force of interfering in private lives and persecuting the Shia Muslim minority.

Members of the force patrol public places, seeking out infractions such as alcohol use or unrelated men and women mixing.

Known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, it also commonly holds suspects incommunicado for investigation.


But a number of cases of overzealous enforcement of moral codes have drawn attention to the force in recent years.

In 2002, the religious police were accused of preventing unrelated men from rescuing 14 schoolgirls trapped in a burning building. They subsequently died.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef
Prince Nayef has rejected calls to dismantle the force entirely

Minority Shia Muslims in the kingdom also complain that they are detained until they sign documents renouncing their faith, which the Sunni Wahhabi school of Islam deems heretical.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef is said to be a strong supporter of the force who has resisted calls for it to be dismantled.

But his decree, carried by state media late on Wednesday, said the religious police would now have to hand suspects over to prosecutors straight after apprehension.

"The role of the commission... ends with the arrest of the suspect or suspects," it said.

"After they are handed over to [regular] police, they [the suspects] will be referred to prosecutors," said the decree, which was sent to provincial governors across the kingdom.

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