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Saudi religious police face suits

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- After the car stopped outside an amusement park in Riyadh, two men dragged the driver from the wheel and took three women passengers on a wild ride for more than an hour, bouncing over sidewalks and finally abandoning them on a darkened street.

The women at first thought terrorists had kidnapped them. The two men, however, said they were religious police.

It might have gone down as just one more excess of zealousness by the forces charged with upholding Islamic modesty, except that Umm Faisal, the senior of three women, did something that is believed unprecedented in Saudi Arabia: She went to court.

Four years after the incident, the latest chapter of the legal battle being waged by this 50-year-old mother of five reopens today before Riyadh's Grievances Court, which handles damages suits for abuses by government and public figures.

The unusual publicity surrounding Umm Faisal's story comes on top of two cases involving the death in religious police custody of two Saudi men -- one arrested for allegedly consuming alcohol, another for being alone with a woman not of his family.

A trial opened today against three religious police officers and a fourth man in the death of Ahmed al-Bulaiwi, the man detained for being alone with a woman. Relatives demanded the death penalty against the defendants.

Taken together, the cases threaten to undermine the authority of the force's employer, the powerful, independent body called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Since the commission's creation more than six decades ago, there has been no known public legal action taken against its members despite complaints that they occasionally overstep their boundaries. The public view has tended to be that whatever their faults, they are acting in Islam's name to defend morality.

But things might be changing.

The National Society for Human Rights, a nongovernmental body, has issued a report that levels a string of allegations at the religious police, including abusive language, unsubstantiated accusations, and coerced confessions.

Umm Faisal -- her full name is withheld in reports on the case -- says she, her 21-year-old daughter, and her maid had gone to pick up her two teenage sons in the family's new Chevrolet Caprice.

"I kept asking the men, 'Are you terrorists?' They finally said they were members of the commission," she said.

In early 2004 Umm Faisal filed suit at Riyadh's General Court, but says several judges pressed her to drop it and late last year the case was dismissed. She then turned to the Grievances Court, which fined one official $540 for mistreating the women and acquitted the other. Her appeal opens before the court today.