Sunday, April 16, 2006

Do We Need Al-Hiaa?

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
Members of the Human Rights Committee are visiting Sheikh Algaith President of the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue (known as Hiaa) to check some disturbing complaints.
According to Ms. Suhaila Zein Alabedeen, The newly-found nongovernmental organization is checking stories of human rights abuse by zealot commission members.

Cases include beating, imprisonment and verbal abuse of innocent couples because of unfounded suspicions of improper relations. Others complain that the commission members hunt for such relations in family sections of public places. If single men are not allowed into these areas why these members are the exception? they protest. Many were taken from malls, restaurants and streets just because they couldn't prove they were relatives.

A South African nurse was caught in a supermarket with her Lebanese boyfriend. Both were Christians shopping for Xmas. The "Hiaa" put them in its private prison for 14 days. Both were denied phone calls and access to their lawyers, embassies and companies.
It took their relatives and friends a couple of weeks to find and bail them out.

A Filipino maid with her husband and infant were caught in another market for similar suspicion. Even though the husband proved their relations, his wife was kept in prison and he was let out with the infant. A prison officer insisted she should return to her sponsor not husband. She left her sponsor because he had not given her a single salary for six months. Apparently, this wasn't enough reason to let her go, so the husband's lawyer enlisted the help of the Human Rights Commission and the media. Prince Salman, the Governor of Riyadh intervened and ordered her release.

A Saudi Doctor with his sister was leaving the market with a couple of traveling bags when an angry Hiaa member approached them. Why, he wanted to know, was the lady half covering her hair, and that under her abaya the lower parts of her legs were not covered. (How could he tell? He must have been a keen observant!) Besides, the brother must prove that she was his sister. Both should go to the Hiaa offices for further investigation and proper Islamic teaching.

To make a long story short, the brother was strong enough to insist on taking his sister home first then went to their offices to go through unforgettable confrontation. It would have been even worse if she wasn't his sister or he wasn't Saudi!

Engaged couples, colleagues, relatives and friends are caught everyday in very open, very public places on their own or in groups because the Hiaa regards this as "Khelwa". Al-Khelwa in Islam means that a man and a woman are meeting alone where no one can see them. To be in a public place automatically means you are not alone, and therefore not in Khelwa.

The problem is a matter of basic principles. Either you believe in human rights and dignity or you don't. Either you presume the best in people or the worst. Either people are innocent until proven guilty or they are all guilty until they prove their innocence. Either all people are equal under the law, foreigners of all nationalities included, or they are not. Either you take Islam as is, or you make your own version and enforce it on others.

Besides, how can one be the accuser, judge, juror, jailor and executor at the same time? How could a Hiaa member make the accusation, take the accused to his private court, judge him without the presence of a lawyer and imprison him in Hiaa jail? This is too much authority in one hand. Justice cannot be served this way even if the Hiaa members were angels, and they are not.

In the reform mode we are in, it is about time we fix this problem. I don't advocate the scrapping of Hiaa. We do need them. They do a lot of good work in promoting Islamic values and preventing vice, as they are supposed to do. But these duties have to be regulated, and performed in civilized manner. Human rights and due process have to be observed. Thos who cross the line and abuse their authority must be disciplined. Punishment should fit the crime—no exceptions allowed.

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