Religious police in Saudi Arabia are accused of forcibly preventing teenage schoolgirls from fleeing a burning building, because the girls were not dressed according to the strict Islamic code enforced in that country.
Some of the girls were beaten by members of the feared Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, who also stopped men from entering the school grounds to rescue the girls, according to reports in the Saudi media.
Fourteen girls aged between 12 and 15 died and another 50 were injured in last week's tragedy, which reportedly has shocked the country. The press reports and public criticism come as a rare challenge to the powerful Islamic establishment.
International human rights groups have weighed into the debate, calling for an outside investigation into the affair.
The fire broke out at the 31st Girls Middle School in Mecca, Islam's holiest city, last Monday, at a time when more than 800 girls were attending classes in the building.
Fleeing the flames, the girls were not dressed in the headscarves and long black robes required under the kingdom's interpretation of Islam to maintain modesty.
Saudi press reports say members of the religious police, known as "mutaween" in Arabic, tried to prevent firemen and paramedics from entering, on the grounds it would be sinful for the men to approach girls not suitably attired.
The Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper quoted civil police officers as confirming religious police had blocked the gate.
Some eyewitnesses spoke of three religious policemen "beating young girls" as they tried to flee, because they were not covered from head to toe.
Adding to the problems was the fact the gates were locked - a routine practice aimed at enforcing strict segregation of the sexes.
Most of the 14 who died were killed in a stampede as the frightened girls tried to escape.
Mecca's Civil Defense Department said in a report the actions of the mutaween had "resulted in the increased number of casualties."
"We told them that the situation was dangerous and it was not the time to discuss religious issues, but they refused and started shouting at us," officers of the department were quoted as saying.
Families of some of the dead have been threatening legal action against education authorities, and have also raised concerns about overcrowding and the absence of safety facilities at the school such as alarms and emergency exits.
The mutaween, an agency whose members enjoy wide powers to punish and arrest citizens accused of violating strict moral regulations, has denied the charges.
Several days after the fire, Saudi's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, was quoted as saying that "negligent, incompetent and careless" officials would be punished.
But one commentary, in Arab News, took issue with that view of the cause of the tragedy.
"The only explanation that has been given is 'carelessness,' " wrote Raid Qusti in the daily newspaper. "To that explanation, we have the right to say: It's just not good enough."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch called for "an independent, thorough, and transparent" investigation into the incident
"Women and girls may have died unnecessarily because of extreme interpretations of the Islamic dress code," said Hanny Megally, HRW's Middle East executive director. "State authorities with direct and indirect responsibility for this tragedy must be held accountable."
"When state policies on segregation of sexes are implemented at the expense of human life, urgent steps are needed at the highest level," Amnesty International added in a statement. "Policies and practices through which the lives of women and girls are devalued must be changed."
The local press coverage has drawn comment, with one Saudi paper citing a new trend of "openness" in the kingdom in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the U.S.
The director of girls' education in the southern Saudi region, Rasheed Al-Baydhani, was quoted as expressing surprise at the nature of the media coverage, and saying the tragedy was an "act of Allah" that could have happened anywhere.
"I wish these writers would tone down their language and take the heat off the [state agency for girls' education], which is guilty of nothing," he said.
Saudi Arabia, long regarded as an important U.S. ally, has been widely accused of human rights violations and religious persecution.
According to international media watchdogs, the Saudi press is far from free.
"One of the most politically closed societies in the world," says the Committee to Protect Journalists of the kingdom.
"Dissent is not tolerated, and there are no political parties or democratic elections. Not surprisingly, the press is uncritically supportive of the regime and its policies."
A 1982 royal decree on the press and publications is used to subject journalists to strict censorship, says Reporters Without Frontiers. "Anyone who dares to criticize the government, royal family, heads of friendly states or the religious establishment are liable to severe jail sentences."
RSF cites cases in which journalists deemed "irreverent" have been forced by security police to sign a document undertaking never again to write for Saudi or foreign media publications.
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