Several sources have emerged from the shadows to throw new light on prison life in al-Hair and what could have led to Monday's tragedy. 

The father of one dead inmate and a Saudi academic living in the kingdom, have broken their silence to give an insight into the "shocking conditions" inside the ill-fated prison.

Risking persecution and incarceration by the Saudi authorities, both men decided to speak out to Aljazeera.net in the hope of improving conditions for surviving prisoners.

Prisoners sleeping

They said at the time of the fire, extreme overcrowding led to each wing containing between 300 and 350.

"My son had nobody to turn to. If only the world knew what goes on here"

Abd Allah,
father of an al-Hair victim

Many prisoners had been sleeping in passage ways due to lack of space.

To add to the problem, thousands of prisoners were transferred to al-Hair following the temporary closure of Riyadh’s Malaz prison for repairs.

Abd Allah, a father of one of the many al-Hair victims, told Aljazeera.net on Wednesday that he had seen his son only twice before his death, despite his arrest taking place six months ago.

“He was talking to a shopkeeper when police grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him into a car. It was three days before I knew he was in al-Hair.

The truth

"I'm still not sure what he was locked up for and I will probably never get to the truth now."

Abd Allah added that his son had never been charged or tried, had been shackled in a cell he shared with dozens of others and had been brutalised on many separate occasions.

In a rare public criticism of the government by a national inside Saudi Arabia, Dr Said Al Zuair said he had no confidence in the Ministry of the Interior at all.

“We just don’t trust it [the ministry]”, he told Aljazeera TV on Tuesday, adding many of the prisoners that died were from among the poor and oppressed."

Dr Said Al Zuair may soon be a
political prisoner for his critical
remarks

 

Zuair criticised the injustice of imprisoning many who had had no trial, legal representation or any semblance of justice. “Some inmates have not seen the light of day or relatives for months at a time.”

One prisoner who has been detained at al-Hair did not see the sky or sunlight for one whole year, according to the former lecturer of media studies at al-Imam University.

Saudi dissident, Dr Saad al-Faqih, first broke the news of the prison blaze despite being based in London.

Fire extinguishers

He dismissed the official government toll of 67 as completely inaccurate, putting the number of dead at 184. By Tuesday evening Saudi authorities upped the official toll to 93 and it is expected to rise again by Thursday.

Head of the Movement for Islamic Reform, al-Faqih said basic safety features like ventilation and fire extinguishers were non-existent.

Countless human rights organisations accuse Saudi Arabia of arbitrary arrests, the torture of detainees and the barring of prisoner access to family members or lawyers.

A high-level security source quoted by al-Hayat newspaper on Tuesday ruled out "any act of sabotage".

The source said: "This sort of accident happens anywhere and a short circuit cannot be ruled out, particularly since the fire started in the afternoon at a time when the electricity supply is overloaded."

Death trap

However, Dr Muhammad al-Massari, head of the London-based Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights, told Aljazeera.net the prison was an over-crowded death trap ... "an accident waiting to happen".

He said every wing of the jail was originally constructed to accommodate a maximum of 180 students but held in excess of 350 men.

But Dr al-Massari, who has himself firsthand experience of prison life in Saudi, says at least one of his contacts in the kingdom claims the fire was arson.

"Our source confirms that the fire in al-Hair was deliberately organised. Among those who died were seven Saudis who had been condemened to death," said Dr al-Massari.