SAUDI ARABIA

Video: British man assaulted by Saudi religious police

A video showing a Saudi religious police officer jumping on the back of a British man and then hitting him has been shared widely on social media since Sunday. The video has provoked widespread outrage in Saudi Arabia, where the religious police are often accused of abusing their power.

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A video showing a Saudi religious police officer jumping on the back of a British man and then hitting him has been shared widely on social media since Sunday. The video has provoked widespread outrage in Saudi Arabia, where the religious police are often accused of abusing their power.

The short video, which lasts just nine seconds, was filmed in the parking lot of a shopping centre in Riyadh and shows a Saudi religious police officer jumping on a British man—literally. When she sees her husband in trouble, the man’s Saudi wife tries to intervene and scuffles with the officer.

“Get off my wife! That’s my wife, how dare you?” yells the British man.

According to several witnesses interviewed by the local press, the man in the video is a British expat named Peter Howarth-Lees. While in a shopping centre, he refused to comply with the religious police, known as the Haia, who began to verbally abuse him for standing with his wife in a checkout line reserved exclusively for women and families. The officers then followed the couple into the parking lot outside the centre, where the altercation occurred.

Many Saudis took to social media to denounce this “abuse” committed by the Haia. The scandal gained so much attention that the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the official name of the Haia, or religious police), Abdel Latif al-Cheikh, decided to launch an investigation into the incident and suspend the officers involved. 

'They kicked me repeatedly in the head and back and then one of them stamped hard on my face'

Peter Howarth-Lees published his account of the clash, which happened on Friday 29 August, on the blog of our Observer, Laylah, a Finnish expat who lives in Riyadh. Below are several excepts of his testimony (reprinted with Laylah’s permission.)

While shopping we had noticed three young men, who looked ‘religious’ wandering the aisles and obviously not shopping (...). We finished our shopping and were asked to use the checkout line reserved for families (...).

We were at the checkout with the female cashier when the three men approached and aggressively objected to us using the family line and harassed us while we were almost finished paying for our shopping. I told them to stop harassing us and go away but they persisted. An argument ensued when the female cashier explained that we were a family (…). Supermarket security intervened but the three men continued their harassment. They then started pushing and shoving me while giving myself and my wife verbal abuse.

The three men followed us out of the supermarket onto the parking lot continuing with verbal abuse and threatening behaviour. Now on the parking lot, we reached our vehicle and I asked my wife to quickly get inside and lock the doors while I loaded the shopping into the trunk with our driver.

I noticed that one of the three men, who were now all standing in front of our car, was taking photos of our plate (…). I decided to take a photo of them with my phone for evidence of who they were so we could file a complaint of unnecessary harassment later.

Then, suddenly and very violently, the three of them attacked me and threw me to the ground and tried unsuccessfully to take my phone. While I was on the ground all three of them proceeded to kick me repeatedly in the head and back and then one of them stamped hard on my face.

On seeing this, my wife got out of the car and somehow managed to push them off me and I managed to stand up. Then, as seen in the short video clip now circulating on social media, one of the three stood on another vehicle and tried to jump on my back but only succeeded in kicking me forward into the crowd who then held me back for a few moments (…).At this point, the man managed to kick my wife in the stomach before I got her to the other side of the car.

As I was getting her into the car, another person (a member of the public seemingly incited by the Haia or simply carried away with the violence) jumped on our hood and roof and then karate kicked me in the neck and I fell again. I then got up from the ground again and bundled my wife back into the car, got in myself and locked the doors.

We were very concerned for our safety at this point as the three men tried to force us out of the car, pulling at the doors and banging on the roof and windows.

We called 999 and local police eventually arrived but were unable to help and said they did not wish to get involved. We called the British Embassy for assistance.

Another Haia official arrived (…). He tried to negotiate, speaking to us through a small gap in the window but it was clear the other three would not be happy until they had us out of the car. They continued their insults and made racist comments to my wife. The older man told us we could leave without being arrested, only if we deleted photos from my phone. We refused, telling him we had done nothing wrong and told him we would not leave until a representative from the British embassy arrived. This seemed to unsettle him (…).

Our driver was not allowed into the car and a Haia vehicle was blocking our only means of escape. The police then left the scene. This development alarmed us further. We were now very frightened and felt extremely vulnerable as again we felt we were left to the mercy of the Haia. If they were capable of such public violence against in front of 50 plus witnesses, what could they do to us if they managed to get us into their vehicle? Thankfully, and to our great relief, they left a few moments before Embassy security arrived and we were escorted home.

The following day, police from Sahafa district tracked us down and took full statements. We were treated extremely professionally with great courtesy and respect by the officers and later taken to hospital for checkups.

Alhamdulillah, we were not badly hurt, just bruised, battered and shocked that a simple Friday night shopping trip in Riyadh’s most exclusive neighborhood could turn into an unprovoked and violent attack on us by government employees.

Despite this, our love and loyalty for this country which is our home, is not shaken by this incident but we expect to see answers from the authorities.

‘I doubt any severe punishment will be given to the Haia men’

Our Observer Laylah says this incident could damage Saudi Arabia’s image abroad.

This is the most shocking story involving the Saudi religious police I’ve heard for a while.

In the past year, Saudi supermarkets have opened “female tellers” which are meant for females (includes couples without children) and families only (not for single males).

Despite there being nothing wrong with the couples choice of tellers (since the British man was not alone but with his wife), the Haia decided to make a big fuss about it.

Personally, I doubt any severe punishment will be given to the Haia men. This is because, as usually happens in these cases, the Haia officers have been merely suspended from work for a while, or they may have been transferred to another region. I have yet to hear of any of the Haia officers actually getting a jail sentence or flogging for their offenses.

Not long ago [Editor’s note: in 2013], several Haia officers were involved in a car chase which resulted in the death of two young Saudi men. The officers in question were never really investigated [Editor’s note: Saudi law bans the trying of Haia officers in penal courts.]

It’s such a shame that these men are supposed to be representing Islam but then they act like this. These kind of incidents give such a bad name to Saudi Arabia and Muslims.

On Tuesday, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice made public the findings of its investigation. The report clears Peter Howarth-Lees of any wrongdoing or infraction of the law. The report added that the three officers committed perjury during their statements and that they will be transferred out of Riyadh and placed in administrative positions.