Fourteen Saudi girls died in the midst of a dormitory fire at a Saudi Arabian school because religious police would not permit male firefighters rescue them in case they were not covered from head to toe in their traditional robes.
Fifty other girls were wounded as the religious police prevented them from escaping the building during a blaze at a Middle School in Mecca earlier this month.
Government-controlled newspapers accused members of the religious police, the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, of preventing rescue attempts because some of the girls would not have been wearing the mandatory Islamic dress, which covers the entire body and hair.
"They forced the girls to remain inside the school and didn’t allow them to leave, saying that their hair wasn’t covered and they weren’t wearing the abaya [long robe]," the Saudi al-Eqtisadiah newspaper quoted a number of firefighters and police.
Firefighters, police and medical crews said they were kept from going inside the school for that reason. "We tried to convince them that the situation was very serious but they just screamed at us and refused to move away from the gate," the officers told the newspaper.
According to the reports, most of the girls suffocated, fell from the windows of the building or were trampled to death.
Meanwhile, head of Mecca’s police, Brigadier Mohammed al-Harthy, said Sunday that he had arrived at the scene to find a member of the religious police "trying to interfere". "He was fighting with a police officer, trying to prevent him from entering the school," Brig. al-Harthy said. "I instructed him to leave and he did."
The fire has led to a domestic debate and to a worldwide outcry, with Amnesty International demanding a public investigation into the issue. For his part, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah has vowed that "negligent, incompetent and careless" officials would be punished.
According to Arab News daily, parents of the victims said they were considering taking legal action against officials.
The director of the Committee, Sheikh Jaber al-Hakmi, denied his people had prevented rescuers from entering the site. However, the religious police have come under public criticism over this incident. The committee, which has offices in every city, is criticized in private, however this is believed to be the first time that newspapers have come out against it.
The committee has powers to arrest, investigate and give out summary punishments or refer to the courts individuals suspected of violating religious or moral rules. (Albawaba.com)