US woman's detention at Starbucks draws renewed criticism for Saudi religious police
February 20, 2008
Saudi Arabia's religious police are under attack again over what critics consider heavy-handed enforcement of the country's gender segregation policies and other strict social rules.
This time the case involves an American businesswoman who went with a male colleague to a Starbucks branch in the Saudi capital and ended up in jail for sitting in a coffee shop with a man who is not a close relative.
The brief detention of the woman, identified only as Yara, drew headlines in Saudi media, prompting one writer to call the Feb. 4 arrest "an abduction.'' A local rights group called for an explanation from the religious police. A senior U.N. official described it as "harassment.''
Responding to the criticism, the religious police issued a statement published Tuesday by Saudi newspapers that said officers were justified in their actions.
Islamic law does not allow police to ignore the prohibition against a woman "sitting with a man who is not a relative and exchanging words and laughter with him,'' said the statement by Abdullah al-Shithri of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
The commission added that it reserved the right to take legal action against Abdullah al-Alami, a columnist for the newspaper Al-Watan who accused the religious police of abducting Yara.
Yara's story, which first appeared in the English-language Arab News, is one of a string of incidents that have provoked a public outcry against the commission.
Last year, members of the religious police were put on trial in two separate cases, each involving the death of a man in custody. Judges dropped charges against them, but the unprecedented trials provoked calls for reforming the religious police.