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March 27, 2002
Locked In!

By Susan Chenard


The fire tragedy in Makkah that claimed the lives of 14 innocent intermediate-level schoolgirls and injured more than 60 others underscores how lock-ins in so many public and private institutions in the Kingdom endanger the lives of innocent people. The girls' school disaster is a heartbreaking example of why the doors of schools, restaurants, banks, supermarkets and other facilities should remain open at all times, including the prayer times. It is nothing short of notorious that building security personnel dead bolt doors and walk away with the keys (sometimes even going off in cars) while clients, customers and shoppers are left trapped inside buildings without emergency exits while the prayer services are conducted. In Makkah, the watchman who had locked the teachers and students inside was reportedly not at his post when the fire broke out!

Why in the world are citizens and expatriates locked in to begin with? What is the possible logic behind this? Fire safety is only one reason why public and private facilities should never be locked during hours of operation. It doesn't take much imagination to think of other possible disasters, like someone having a heart attack that might require an immediate exit from a building. Temporary imposed imprisonment in public and private facilities violates internationally accepted human rights' codes.

A recent Saudi Gazette editorial stated that, “Inquiries have been instituted into the causes of the fire and stampede in the Makkah school. Inquiries into the causes of the fire and why the facilities barred would-be rescuers from entering the school for 'Islamic reasons' must not stop at the school gates.

The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice reportedly told men outside that, “It was sinful to approach them (the female teachers and schoolgirls who were screaming for help in the burning building. Using the commission's villainous logic it was virtuous for the would-be rescuers to watch the women and schoolgirls burn to death rather than to rescue them, and 'God forbid' see them without their abbiyas and headscarves! What is this world coming to? Have men lost their reason?

These official inquires must extend into the reasons why any operating facility is locked at any time during the day. The inquiries must also be made into why buildings can remain open without having emergency exits. If these wrongs are not corrected, it is only a matter of time before other terrible incidents repeat Monday's shameful situation.

The citizens of Saudi Arabia and the community of expatriates deserve a response to the issue of lock-ins. Islamic scholars must come forward and explain to the national and international community as to why the Kingdom allows its people to be locked in against their will during prayer times.

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