With reporting from Riham Sheble
Tensions ran high in a Doha criminal court today as several witnesses called by the defense testified that Gympanzee - a daycare center in which 19 people were killed during a fire at Villaggio mall last year - was not a nursery.
The testimony directly contradicted the information given by several others who had taken the stand, including some of the victims’ parents and former employees of Gympanzee.
Today marked the 10th hearing to determine criminal responsibility for the deaths of 13 children, four employees and two firefighters in a fire at Villaggio mall on May 28, 2012.
Last month, the parents presented to the court receipts, monthly contracts and photos of signage and literature of Gympanzee referring to itself as a nursery.
But the center was not a nursery because no teaching took place there, affirmed four witnesses today, including a former employee whose child had attended the center for two years but was sick on the day of the fire; her husband; and two mothers whose children attended Gympanzee’s drop-and-shop hourly babysitting service.
There was no blackboard, no chalk and no teachers, the witnesses said. Rather, children there played with toys, colored with crayons and used play-dough.
Though the distinction seems moot to many, whether Gympanzee, which was only licensed as a children’s play area, was operating as an unlicensed nursery is an important question to the court in determining if its owners were guilty of negligence.
The driver of the center’s co-owner Iman Al Kuwari also testified today, recounting that Al Kuwari was shouting for help outside of the mall when the fire started. “My children, my children,” she screamed.
Additionally, he called into question the timeliness of the emergency response, saying that firefighters did not arrive at the scene until at least 11:10am, even though his employer had notified him of the fire at 10:20am. Previously, all other witnesses had testified that the fire began around 11am.
Amid today’s testimony, an argument erupted in court between the prosecuting attorney and a defense lawyer over the legality of calling two surprise witnesses.
A judge allowed the witnesses to be heard over the prosecutor’s protests that the people in question, who were not identified by name during the discussion, had already prepared their testimony with the defense.
The prosecutor also requested that the parents who testified to different realities regarding Gympanzee face each other in court to sort out discrepancies, but a judge refused the request.
Frustration and skepticism were evident on the prosecutor’s face while he cross-examined witnesses in court. The sentiments were echoed by many of the parents who turned out for today’s hearing.
“It was horrible. It was horrifying,” one mother told Doha News. “They’re all liars.”
The defense will continue to present witnesses during at least two more sessions this month: on Feb. 14 and Feb. 26.
At least some of the defendants, which include Al Kuwari and her husband, the ambassador to Belgium, four Villaggio mall officials and an employee of the Ministry of Business & Trade, are expected to testify at some point.
Credit: To photo courtesy of Gympanzee on Facebook; second photo by Jane Weekes