FOURTEEN girls died in a dormitory fire at a Saudi Arabian school because religious police would not let male firefighters rescue them in case they were not covered from head to toe in traditional robes.
Fifty other girls were injured as the religious police prevented them from fleeing the building during the blaze at the 31st Girls Middle School in Mecca on 11 March.
Government-controlled newspapers accused members of the religious police - the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice - of blocking 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 al-Eqtisadiah newspaper quoted a number of firefighters and police as saying.
Firefighters, police and medical crews said they were kept from going inside the school as well for the same 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 victims either suffocated, fell from the windows of the four-storey building or were trampled to death.
The head of Mecca’s police, Brigadier Mohammed al-Harthy, said yesterday 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 an international outcry, with Amnesty International demanding a public investigation. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah has vowed that "negligent, incompetent and careless" officials would be punished.
According to the daily Arab News, parents of the victims said they were considering taking legal action against officials.
The director of the committee, Sheik Jaber al-Hakmi, denied his people had prevented rescuers from entering the school. However, the powerful religious police have come under unprecedented public criticism over the incident. The committee, which has offices in every city, is criticised in private, but this is believed to be the first time that newspapers have come out against it.
The committee has powers to arrest, investigate and mete out summary punishments or refer to the courts individuals suspected of violating religious or moral precepts. Women failing to cover themselves have suffered on-the-spot beatings.
In 1990, during the Gulf war, religious policemen beat US servicewomen for walking around in shorts.