Nearly three months after the horrific tragedy that unfolded in Saudi Arabia during the Muslim pilgrimage, an independent investigation concludes the death toll equals at least 2,411 — well above what the Saudi government admits.
The latest numbers published by the Associated Press make the Mina stampede the deadliest Hajj disaster on record, followed by the one that occurred in 1990 when almost 1,426 pilgrims lost their lives.
AP’s count hasn’t been officially confirmed, probably because it is starkly different to the one provided by the Gulf kingdom.
As per Saudi authorities, the number of victims is 769, a figure released within two days of the Sept. 24 stampede. Since then, there hasn’t been an update from Riyadh on the state of affairs and the silence has caused much frustration and distress to families involved in the stampede.
Many believe the Saudi royal family is intentionally hiding the actual death toll to protect its self-proclaimed status as the “custodians of the two holy mosques” as well as the multi-billion dollar revenue generated from the annual pilgrimage. The country’s media has also been allegedly hushed up on the issue.
Although King Salman ordered an investigation into the tragedy almost immediately, very few details have been made public. This has led to a lot of criticism from human rights groups as well as countries whose citizens died in the stampede — especially from Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran, which was most affected by the disaster. According to the AP count, 464 Iranian pilgrims were killed.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader, even threatened the Saudi government with "tough and harsh" retaliation for not repatriating bodies of Iranian nationals swiftly but to no avail.
The drastic difference between death tolls revealed by the AP report, however, changes the situation. It is high time Saudi Arabia stopped evading critics and their questions and started answering them.