Religious police implicated in a second death

A member of Saudi religious police has been implicated in death of a man suspected of possessing and consuming alcohol, an official statement said Wednesday.

The accusation leveled against the unnamed agent of the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which employs the religious police, is the second such charge of police brutality targeting the governmental body. The commission is charged with enforcing the kingdom's strict Islamic lifestyle.

Last Saturday, a judge postponed the trial of three commission members allegedly involved in the death in custody of Ahmed al-Bulaiwi, a retired border patrol guard in his early 50s.

Al-Bulaiwi died shortly after his June 1 arrest in the northern town of Tabuk for being alone with a woman who was not a relative - an act considered an offense in the kingdom. No date has been set for the new trial.

The cases threaten to undermine the once unquestioned authority of the commission, whose members patrol public places to ensure that women are covered, sexes don't mingle, shops close five times a day for Muslim prayers and men go to the mosque for worship. It has long been resented for intimidating people and interfering in the tiniest details of people's lives.

The new case involves the death in detention of Sulaiman al-Huraisi last month after a force from the commission raided his house in Riyadh because they suspected he had alcohol - illegal in Saudi Arabia.

Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, a legal consultant for the al-Huraisi family, said witnesses reported that the religious police beat al-Huraisi "severely" and that he was bleeding heavily when taken into their custody.

A statement issued by the governorate of Riyadh on Tuesday blamed the death on a commission member who had not been asked to participate in the raid.

Investigators "have concluded that several people took part in the search and arrest operations who were not members of the group officially charged with the mission," said the statement.

"One of those people has been accused of the death and he has been referred to the court," it said.

The statement did not say whether the detained commission member would stand trial.

The deaths have provoked a public outcry, with almost daily coverage in government-guided newspapers and commentaries calling for the commission's reform.

Many Saudis say they support the idea of having the commission because its mandate is based on several verses in the Quran. But they also say it should be regulated because the free rein it has long enjoyed has led to some of its members overstepping their duties.