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17 July 2012

The insanity of extremism

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Recent tragedy in Saudi Arabia shows fanatics concealing their own radical beliefs behind official badges of approval

By Tariq A. Al-Maeena

A man was put to death in Saudi Arabia last week. He was not a criminal. What sets this death apart from many others is that it wasn’t due to natural causes or war. Nor was it due to ill health. The victim was a husband, a father, a brother and a son to the loved ones he unwillingly left behind. His death came at the hands of members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Hai’a), the Saudi religious police.

His crime? The 34-year old man had taken his wife and two children for an outing in the cool of the evening to a local park in Al Baha, a region known for its hills and cool weather. While the children played about, the couple relaxed in the serenity of the pleasant surroundings listening to songs from their car stereo.

When they were ready to leave, the man found himself approached by a stranger who objected to the playing of the radio. He was from the religious police. The family man objected to his approach and got into his vehicle to take his family home. The commission members in their nearby patrol car were not so forgiving and decided to give chase. It was past midnight by then.

They were on hot pursuit in the dark of the night. The terrified man turned onto a bridge in the dark, not seeing or realising that construction was still not complete. The car went off the bridge and he died of multiple injuries sustained from the crash. Rescue teams from the Civil Defence and Saudi Red Crescent rushed to the scene and removed the occupants from the mangled vehicle and rushed them to hospital.

Photo Courtesy: Luis Vazquez/Gulf News
His wife, who was in her fifth month of pregnancy sustained life threatening injuries with the possibility of having her right arm amputated. The couple’s nine-year old son was in critical condition and taken to the ICU, while their four-year-old daughter was listed as being in stable condition. The dead man’s mortal remains were kept in the morgue, pending investigations.

This family picnic that turned into a tragic nightmare has raised the anger of many. The Emir of Al Baha region, Prince Mishari Bin Saud Bin Abdul Aziz, publicly stated that he was horrified at the conduct and behaviour of the members of the commission and that he had instructed the concerned agencies to set up a special committee to investigate this horrible tragedy. He would be closely monitoring the investigation and emphasised that, “All those linked to the accident have been arrested and are being interrogated ... those responsible will be punished,” with an assurance that similar incidents would not be repeated.
Too late for that family though.

The commission chief, recently appointed by King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, and a man considered to be sensible and pragmatic, was among the first to express his condolences to the family for the tragedy caused by his staff. He stated: “We cannot blame anyone specifically because the authorities concerned are conducting investigations now and nothing has been proved yet. We don’t know whether it was actually a hot pursuit or something else had happened. The Emir of Al Baha is well-known for being just, far-sighted and wise. The case is in honest hands and justice will be served,” he said. He cautioned all heads of the commission’s branches and personnel against pursuing suspects in compliance with his previous directives.

The committee investigating this awful tragedy returned their verdict a few days later. The commission members were squarely blamed for the death and injuries to the family. They charged the commission members and the patrol team as “personally responsible for their action that led to the accident as they did not comply with official directives and ignored existing regulations when they decided to pursue the couple following a heated argument”.
Tariq A. Al-Maeena
Partial blame was also charged against the construction company who failed to put up barriers and warning signs to alert motorists of the dangers ahead. But perhaps the most ridiculous conclusion the committee came up with was that the victim was also partially responsible for his death. According to their reports, “the victim ignored the patrol team when it gave orders to pull up. The car chase and the subsequent accident could have been avoided had the citizen listened to the officers”. They concluded, though, by adding that this did not justify the seemingly terrorising chase and pursuit by commission’s patrol cars of innocent people in the middle of the night.

And that is exactly what it was. An innocent family whose outing turned into a bloody nightmare when they were terrorised by fanatics concealing their own extreme beliefs behind the official badges of government sanction.

This is one instance where ‘an eye for an eye’ must apply. It is the only palatable way for justice to be served.

[Tariq A. Al-Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.]

(Courtesy: Gulf News)

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