March 27, 2012 / 3:22 PM / 7 years ago

Saudi religious police ease up to improve image

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi religious police will stop car chases that have led to fatal accidents in the past, local media said on Tuesday, in an attempt to soften the image of a force that aggressively enforces Islamic Sharia laws.

Bearded members of the religious police patrol the streets in Saudi Arabia to enforce strict gender segregation laws and ensure that all shops close during Muslim prayer times and that men and women are modestly dressed.

Formally known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, religious police officers arrest those who do not adhere to their rules.

Involvement in violent incidents and lethal car chases has tarnished the reputation of the force.

“The car chases by the religious police will end,” Alriyadh newspaper quoted the head of the force, Sheikh Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh, as saying. A spokesman for the force confirmed this.

“We care a great deal to make the image of the commission a positive one that reflects the true image of Islam. There is no doubt that these (plans) portray a new vision for the commission,” said the spokesman, Abdulmohsen al-Qifari.

Earlier this year, footage of religious police attacking a family outside a shopping mall in the capital, Riyadh, was posted on You Tube, registering more than 180,000 hits and generating much social media criticism of the force.

In January King Abdullah replaced the head of the religious police, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Humain, with Al al-Sheikh, who swiftly banned the activities of “volunteers” who take it on themselves to chase or detain arrest presumed sharia violators.

The Commision now wants to polish its image after repeated criticism at home and abroad, most notoriously after local media accused religious police of hampering efforts to rescue 15 girls who died inside a blazing Mecca school in 2002.

“We have carried out many training sessions to prepare our patrols for catching up with the times,” Al al-Sheikh said.

Last week, Riyadh governor Prince Sattam bin Abdulaziz eased restrictions that had prevented single men from entering shopping malls. The decision was supported by Al al-Sheikh.

Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Alistair Lyon

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