With reporting from Riham Sheble
The appeals process for the Villaggio fire case kicked off this week at Qatar’s Court of Cassation. But because two of the five defendants did not turn up, and defense lawyers asked for more time to prepare, an appellate judge has postponed the next hearing until January, family members of some of the 19 people killed in the fire have told Doha News.
Relatives confirmed that the co-owners of Gympanzee, the daycare facility where 13 children, four staff members and two firefighters died of smoke asphyxiation last May, were not present at Monday’s hearing.
Their lawyer told a judge that Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar’s Ambassador to Belgium, was working, and that Iman Al-Kuwari, daughter of Qatar’s culture minister, was accompanying him.
But the judge responded to this by ordering the couple’s return, and reminded the lawyer that all defendants are banned from leaving the country until the appeals process is completed, a parent recounted.
Al Thani’s embassy did not answer immediate calls for comment.
Fighting the verdict
Earlier this year, a lower criminal court found the couple, as well as Villaggio mall owner Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al Rabban and manager Tzoulios Tzouliou, liable for the fire deaths, and sentenced them to six years in jail for involuntary manslaughter.
A fifth defendant, Mansour Nasir Fazzaa al-Shahwani from the Ministry of Business and Trade (now called the Ministry of Economy and Commerce), was sentenced to five years in jail.
He was responsible for giving Gympanzee its permit as a children’s play area, when in fact it was operating as a nursery, which it was not equipped or licensed to do, an official investigation into the fire found.
All of the defendants are free pending the outcome of the appeal.
According to relatives, Villaggio’s lawyer argued this week that Civil Defense, and not the mall, should be held accountable for the deaths. Excerpts of the official investigation into the fire assigned blame largely to the mall and Gympanzee, but also found:
“Poor coordination between government agencies responsible for public safety besides deficiencies in fire standards, which extend beyond Villagio and Gympanzee into other buildings in Qatar.”
Meanwhile, victims’ relatives said they are still awaiting the blood money payments that a judge ordered the guilty defendants to pay in June. Separate court cases to that effect are ongoing.
The next appellate hearing will be held on Jan. 6.
For more on the fire, please see our e-book: “Villaggio Fire: A Tragedy Silenced.”