A day before a Qatar judge hands down the final verdict in the 2012 Villaggio Mall fire, a defense attorney has accused prosecutors of “concealing” information from the court.
Tomorrow’s decision will determine the fate of five people who were convicted and then exonerated for their roles in the fire, which killed 19 people, including 13 children.
Lawyer Nasser Al Kaabi, who represents Villaggio’s chairman, told the Court of Appeal this morning that several relatives of those who died received a financial settlement last month.
“All the victims’ families … (have) signed statements that say that they’ve accepted the blood money and compensation and they were dropping both the criminal and civil cases,” Al Kaabi said.
The prosecutor countered that there was “no evidence” to support Al Kaabi’s claims.
It’s not clear what Al Kaabi was referring to when he mentioned the criminal case, as it is the role of prosecutors – not victims or their families – to lay or drop charges in Qatar.
With regards to reaching a settlement, most of the victims’ families have declined to discuss any offer of compensation when asked by Doha News over the past two months.
They have also refused to comment on the status of multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits filed last year in both the US and Qatar.
According to the suit, several families are asking for QR165 million (approximately $45 million) per victim in compensation for emotional and material damage, and a further QR115 million (approximately $31 million) per victim for the suffering of those who died.
The Qatar lawsuit argues that “no one would have died had everyone carried out their duty” and that the deaths happened because of “human mistakes resulting from laziness, negligence and the desire to cut corners and save expenses”.
One of the civil suit plaintiffs, Maryam Charles – whose daughter, Shameega, was one of the teachers who died inside the Gympanzee daycare center during the fire – told Doha News that most of the other plaintiffs had dropped the law firm representing them.
However, she said she was remaining with the firm “as I’m not able to speak directly to the powers that be.”
“This has become a hostage situation rather than a negotiating table,” Charles said. “I take what is offered or leave it altogether.”
Charles’ daughter was one of 19 people who suffocated inside Gympanzee after a fire was sparked by faulty wiring inside a fluorescent light in the mezzanine of Nike, a sporting goods store also located inside the mall.
During a legal saga that has lasted more than three years, lawyers have sparred over whether there were adequate emergency exits and fire suppression equipment in Villaggio, and whether the mall’s decorations met fire safety standards.
There have also been arguments over whether Gympanzee was a children’s play area, as its owners said, or an improperly licensed daycare.
In June 2013, just over a year after the fire, Qatar’s lower criminal court found four defendants guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced them each to the maximum six years in prison. They were:
- Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al Thani, co-owner of Gympanzee and Qatar’s Ambassador to Belgium;
- Iman Al Kuwari, co-owner and manager of Gympanzee;
- Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al-Rabban, Villaggio’s chairman; and
- Tzoulios Tzouliou, Villaggio’s manager.
A municipal worker, Mansour Nasir Fazzaa al-Shahwani, was found guilty of forgery by the lower court and sentenced to five years in jail for providing a license to Gympanzee.
They appealed their conviction and were subsequently exonerated after a judge ruled several pieces of evidence and witness testimony were inadmissible.
However, Qatar’s Court of Cassation said the judge applied the law incorrectly and ordered a retrial at the Court of Appeal.
The first hearing earlier this month was effectively postponed to today after several defendants failed to show up.
Al Thani and Al Kuwari were also absent from today’s hearing, but the judge allowed the session to proceed.
Lawyer Al Kaabi attacked the prosecutor’s handling of the case and said an “important piece of evidence” – a special report commissioned by the Emir in the immediate aftermath of the fire – was “intentionally concealed” from the court.
He told the court that this report contains information that both exonerates his client, Villaggio’s chairman, and suggests officials from the local Nike store – where the fire started – should have been held responsible.
The prosecutor objected to Al Kaabi’s remarks and said the committee’s work was an “administrative matter” and had nothing to do with the prosecutor’s investigation.
Earlier in the hearing, the prosecutor explained why the defendants faced criminal charges and offered a brief explanation about why Nike was not held taken to court.
He said that while the investigation showed the fire started at Nike, it also suggested that it was not intentional or man-made.
Lawyers for the other defendants submitted their arguments in writing.
The attorney of Al Thani and Al Kuwari attempted to address the court, but was prevented from speaking by the judge who said he had “forfeited” the right to speak by failing to ensure his clients attended the session.
The judge will announce his verdict tomorrow.