DOHA -World Cup fans in Qatar caught committing minor offences such as public drunkenness will escape prosecution under plans being developed by the authorities in the conservative Muslim host nation, a diplomat and a person familiar with Qatari briefings to foreign police told Reuters.
While the policing strategy for the Nov 20-Dec 18 competition has yet to be finalised, organisers have told diplomats and police from qualified countries they intend to show flexibility for relatively minor infringements, the sources said.
The signals reflect the delicate balance which Qatar is trying to strike between respecting Islamic religious traditions and accommodating the raucous exuberance of more than a million visiting fans.
Qatar's World Cup organisers, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, did not respond to a request for comment.
"Increased leniency pleases the international community, but comes with the risk that it might upset conservatives inside the country," another diplomat said.
The organisers have not publicly clarified their approach to policing, and many embassies have warned fans that they could face punishment for behaviour that would be tolerated elsewhere.
"Remember, while you're in Qatar, you are subject to local laws," US diplomat Morgan Cassell said in a YouTube video.
According to Qatar's legal code, freedom of expression is restricted, homosexuality is illegal and sex outside marriage is outlawed.
Public drunkenness can incur a prison sentence of up to six months and some things considered benign elsewhere, like public displays of affection or wearing revealing clothes, can be grounds for arrest.
"Arguing with or insulting others in public could lead to arrest. Activities like protests, religious proselytising, advocacy of atheism and criticism of the government of Qatar or the religion of Islam may be criminally prosecuted here. That applies to your social media posts, too," Cassell added.
However, the organisers already intend to relax Qatar's strict laws limiting the public sale of alcohol, and will allow beer to be served near stadiums a few hours before matches kick off.
Informally, they have also told police from European countries which have qualified for the tournament and some diplomats in Doha to expect police to show flexibility in enforcing other laws, such as drunkenness or public disorder.
"Minor offences won't result in a fine or arrest, but police will be instructed to go to a person and ask him or her to comply... Someone who removes a T-shirt in public will be asked to put his T-shirt back on. There is some sort of tolerance," said the person familiar with Qatari briefings for several European police forces who are sending officers to Qatar.
While the Qatari authorities have not confirmed this approach, special legislation taking effect during the tournament gives Qatar's World Cup security chief - known as the Gold Commander - significant leeway in tackling violations of Qatar's laws.
It says the commander, in coordination with authorities, can take decisions including how to treat "acts in violation of the provisions of the laws in force in the country".
Police will take tougher action when the safety of people or property is under threat, organisers told diplomats in a briefing a few months ago, several diplomats said.
Fans who commit such acts, like using flares or fireworks which could cause damage, or being involved in a fight - even where there are no serious injuries - can expect to face fines and cancellation of their Hayya card, the permit to enter Qatar and access stadiums, the source said.
It was not clear whether fans who forfeit their Hayya card would be given a deadline to leave the country, or would be detained for deportation.