The Saudi government should investigate Khamis Mushayit police officers who allegedly set fire to the hiding place of Yemeni migrants, 18 of whom suffered serious burn injuries, Human Rights Watch said today. Victim accounts of the incident contradict Ministry of Interior and Civil Defense denials that the fire was accidentally set by the victims and not ignited by the police.

“Claims that the police deliberately burned the shelter of Yemeni migrants are shocking and show total disregard for human life,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet officials seem more concerned about protecting the officers than finding out the truth by launching a credible inquiry.”

On March 9, 2008, police apparently seeking to arrest a group of 25 undocumented Yemenis, including several children, allegedly set fire to the garbage dump in which they were hiding, apparently to force them to come out. At least 18 Yemenis suffered severe burns. Human Rights Watch spoke to one of the Yemeni burn victims, and has spoken to a Yemeni journalist who published online videotaped interviews with six other Yemeni burn victims ( The men told the journalist that they were working in the garbage dump in Khamis Mushayit, a city in southwestern Saudi Arabia, collecting aluminum, cartons, and plastic material to sell to recycling companies.

The Yemeni victims allege that instead of transporting them to the hospital, the police took them in an ambulance to the Northern Police Station for questioning. “We were screaming from the pain of the burns, begging them for first aid,” burn victim Majid Shami told Human Rights Watch.

Only after interrogating the injured Yemenis did the police transfer them to a local hospital, where they were treated for nine days and released into police custody before their burn injuries had properly healed. The Yemenis remained with the police for two days with “no medication, no food or drink,” according to another victim, Sa`id Husain Hasan. Officers allegedly compelled all in the group to sign a statement that the police officers were not responsible for their burn injuries and that they would not press any charges. Soon after, the Preventive Security Department deported all 18 migrants that suffered burns to Yemen in small groups.

Burn victim Majid Shami told Human Rights Watch:

“Around 4-5 p.m., we hid from the Saudi police [when we saw them approach], as usual…. We hid in the garbage dump of the so-called industrial area … [under] a tin sheet … after they chased us … Then, police officers launched a flammable substance [that started a fire], causing us to come out of the place as the flames engulfed us. We all came out burning … They shot into the air to prevent us from fleeing.”

Another Yemeni, who witnessed the events, Hamza Muhammad, said that “the [police] used a white material, a powder, which increased the fire.” The seven men interviewed by the journalist and Human Rights Watch all said that the police had seen them and knew where they were hiding, and that setting the garbage dump on fire was not an accident. “When the police saw us, we escaped and hid, so they [responded by] burn[ing] wood and tires. [As] we came out, we got burned,” said Hasan.

The Saudi government has claimed it had rescued the Yemeni victims from an accidental fire, suggesting that the victims’ allegations are not credible because they are merely undocumented garbage pickers. On April 25, the Saudi newspaper Okaz carried a statement by the Khamis Mushayit Civil Defense spokesperson Maj. Muhammad al-`Isami claiming that, “the fire broke out in the tires and garbage and spread to an area of 50 meters. … [T]he injured … were present in the area rummaging in the garbage.” On April 28, Interior Ministry spokesperson Col. Abdullah al-Qarni said at a press conference that, “these Yemenis of unknown identity were injured… because of a fire that broke out in the garbage dump … [and that] they are of those [types] who resort to infiltration into the region of `Asir to thieve, rob, and plunder.”

Six burn victims remain in a local hospital in Yemen, while the others are receiving treatment at their homes. Some are too poor to afford medication. The Yemeni authorities have begun an investigation and called in the Saudi ambassador for an explanation.

Human Rights Watch urged the Saudi authorities to promptly and impartially investigate the allegations that police officers were responsible for setting the fire that harmed the Yemenis and then denied them access to adequate medical treatment. All those responsible should be fully prosecuted and appropriately punished.

“The Saudi government’s inaction in the face of this alleged police inhumanity is outrageous,” Whitson said. “Riyadh has a responsibility to conduct a criminal investigation.”