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Reuters/Ahmad Masood
Muslim pilgrims at hajj.

A Nigerian human rights group blames Saudi Arabia for the hajj deaths

By Omar Mohammed

A Lagos-based Islamic human rights group says Saudi authorities are responsible for the stampede during the recent hajj that left more than 700 people dead and scores injured.

“As eyewitnesses of the gory stampede incident, we testify that it was caused by security breakdown on the part of the Saudi authorities,” the director of the Muslims Rights Concern (MURIC), Ishaq Akintola, said in a statement. So far, 54 Nigerians are reported to have died in Mina, the site of the tragedy.

The comments come a few days after Prince Khaled al-Faisal, head of the central Saudi Hajj commitee, blamed “some pilgrims with African nationalities” for causing the stampede. 

Some MURIC officials attended the hajj, and they dispute this and say that a lapse in crowd control by authorities allowed Egyptian pilgrims, returning from the symbolic stoning of the devil, an important ritual at hajj, to take the wrong route back and block the path of those heading in the other direction. This description seems to match the one provided by Saudi authorities that the stampede may have been precipitated by “the converging of crowds from two directions,” as the New York Times explains (paywall).

“The Saudi authorities therefore lied when they tried to put the blame squarely on African pilgrims,” Akintola says. “This is criminal negligence and the Saudi authorities must be held accountable.”

This sentiment echoes comments by the head of Nigeria’s hajj delegation, the Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi II, who told the BBC that the stampede “happened on the designated ways for incoming and outgoing pilgrims to the site crossing each other—which shouldn’t be.”

Nigeria is not the only country to accuse the Saudi authorities of incompetence. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called on Saudi Arabia to apologize for the deaths. ”Instead of accusing this and that, the Saudis should accept the responsibility and apologize to the Muslims and the victims’ families,” he said.

This incident comes only two weeks after a crane collapse at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which killed over a 100 people. And this is not the first time that the hajj has led to tragic accidents. The deadliest happened 25 years ago, in which over 1,400 people were killed (paywall) in a tunnel stampede.

Saudia Arabia’s ruler, King Salman, has called for a review of the safety procedures around the hajj. There is a need “to improve the level of organization and management of movement” of pilgrims, the BBC quoted him saying.

However, there have been calls by some Muslims around the world for the Middle Eastern nation to relinquish its exclusive control of Islam’s holiest sites.

“Mecca and Medina are ruled by Saudi Arabia, but they belong to the Muslim world. They are our collective sacredness. They shouldn’t be an individual possession,” the journalist Haroon Moghul wrote here at Quartz last week.