- The Washington Times - Monday, March 18, 2002

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Government-run newspapers in Saudi Arabia have accused the country's religious police of preventing the rescue of girls trapped in a school fire because they were not wearing the long dresses and head coverings required in public.
Fourteen girls died in the catastrophe a week ago at the 31st Girls Middle School in Mecca. Fifty others were injured, while hundreds of others escaped.
The religious police, which have offices in every city, are routinely criticized privately in Saudi society, but this was believed to be the first time that newspapers in the kingdom have come out with harsh words against them.
The newspapers accused members of the religious police the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice of blocking rescue attempts by male firefighters and paramedics because some of the girls were not 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 said, citing firefighters and police.
The government-run Saudi Gazette said 835 students and 55 teachers were in the building at the time of the fire, which broke out a half-hour after classes started. The Saudi Press Agency said students started screaming, setting off a stampede for the exits.
Initial reports said some gates were locked because a guard who had the key was away. But Al-Eqtisadiah quoted unidentified civil police officers as saying that religious police blocked the gate and refused to move even after rescuers tried to convince them that the situation was very serious.
According to the newspaper reports, most of the victims either suffocated, fell from the windows of the four-story building or were trampled to death.
The head of Mecca's police, Brigadier Mohammed al-Harthy, told the Associated Press yesterday that he 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," Mr. al-Harthy said. "I immediately instructed him to leave, and he did."
The director of the religious police, Sheik Jaber al-Hakmi, denied his people prevented rescuers from entering the school. "There are some who are trying to pin the death of the 14 girls on the committee," he said.
The fire has led to a domestic debate and an international outcry. A few days after the fire, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah vowed that "negligent, incompetent and careless" officials would be punished.
Besides the religious police, the newspapers also criticized the education minister and the schooling system. According to the daily Arab News, parents of the victims said they were considering taking legal action against education officials.
The religious police have broad powers to arrest, investigate and mete out summary punishments or refer to the courts individuals suspected of violating religious or moral precepts.
In the past, members of the religious police would roam streets and shopping malls, beating women who were not covered according to Islamic teaching.
In 1990, at the height of the Gulf war, religious policemen attacked American servicewomen who walked around in shorts in public in the capital, Riyadh.
A complaint by the U.S. government prompted Riyadh's governor, Prince Salman, to instruct the religious police to stop beating American women for dress-code violations.

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