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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 June 2007, 18:44 GMT 19:44 UK
Saudi 'virtue police' trial delay
Men and women walk in the capital Riyadh
The religious police enforce Islamic codes of dress and morality
A trial of members of the feared religious police in Saudi Arabia over the death of a man in their custody has been delayed, according to reports.

The death was one of two fatalities a few weeks ago that sparked a media uproar and calls for a re-evaluation of the force's role and responsibilities.

The man, Ahmed al-Bulaiwi, was accused of socialising with an unrelated woman.

No new date has so far been set for the trial, which was to involve at least three police.

An investigation has also been launched into the death of another man who had been detained for alleged alcohol peddling.

Both men died shortly after being taken into custody.

Balance of power

Members of the force, known as The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, roam the streets to make sure that shops are closed during prayer time, that women observe the strict dress code and that they do not mix with unrelated males.

Over the past few years, criticism of the force has grown louder, the BBC's Arab affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi says, and the Saudi royal family promised reform.

As a result, the religious police has had some of its powers curtailed.

Mr al-Bulaiwi's cousin Audah, who is representing the family during the trial, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that a judge told him the delay was only procedural and the trial would still take place.

The deaths of the men in custody have reignited the debate about the wide-ranging powers given to its members.

One Saudi columnist wrote that the religious police enjoyed immunity of any kind of accountability and that they have "have taken on the role of the policeman, judge and jury".

Closely-watched trial

The Saudi government has sought to play down the significance of the incidents.

It is a difficult balancing act for the rulers of Saudi Arabia.

The royal family derives its legitimacy from presenting itself as the upholder of Islamic Sharia.

It would not like to be seen as undermining the power of the religious police, neither can it afford to alienate an angry public.

The trial will be watched closely by supporters of the police as well as their critics, our correspondent says.

Its outcome will most likely affect the balance of power between the powerful religious establishment and those who want to see change in the conservative kingdom.

Country profile: Saudi Arabia
20 Apr 07 |  Country profiles
Pressures build on Saudi media
09 Jun 06 |  Middle East
Saudi religious police face curbs
25 May 06 |  Middle East

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