Five charged in Villaggio fire deaths sentenced to jail for involuntary manslaughter

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With reporting from Riham Sheble and editing from Victoria Scott

A judge has handed down a harsh sentence for five of the seven defendants in the criminal trial regarding the 19 Villaggio fire deaths. Here’s the latest:

UPDATE | 4:10pm

In the above Al Jazeera English report, victims’ relatives thank Qatar for serving justice. The reporter also explained that the defendants were asked to leave the courtroom before the verdict was read so that they could be told individually.

UPDATE | 1:40pm

Some of the families of the victims have been speaking to Doha News about their emotions and thoughts following this morning’s verdict.

Raghda Sharabati, mother of three year old Hana, told us:

“We are very pleased with this initial verdict. We are thankful to Qatar that although there are big names involved, yet justice is served. We hope it stays like that in the appeal stages.”

Meanwhile, Abd al-Masseih, father of two year old Evana, told us his whole family was happy about the verdict:

“First, I would like to thank His Highness, the Heir Apparent for keeping his promise of serving justice regardless of people’s status and power.  We hope that the appeal stage and the Civil Court’s verdict do not take a long time like this verdict has.

As much as I am heartbroken at the loss of my little girl, I am proud that in her death, she continues to give. Because of the sacrifice that our children made, Qatar is paying serious attention to safety measures. Because of them, Qatar will hopefully be a safer place.”

And finally Mouneeb Emeran, father of one year old Umar, told us that he felt he could now try to “pick himself up again” and carry on:

“I feel relieved, happy and very pleasantly surprised. I did not expect such a firm verdict. My wife could not come to court today. I called her once the verdict was out. She is ecstatic.

Although the void that Umar’s death has left us with can never be filled, we can at least now try to move on. My wife still cannot look at any of his pictures. Maybe today she’ll look at them and smile. Now I can at least start to pick myself up again. We also have our new born baby to take care of and look forward to see it growing. What a relief.”

UPDATE | 12:25pm

A judge has also deemed that the standard “blood-money” of QR200,000 per victim be applied as part of the verdict. This will be paid by Villaggio’s insurance companies to the families of the victims.

During the trial, the lawyer for the families also asked for a $13.7 million (QR50 million) payout for material and emotional damages experienced by each inheritor of the victim, and a $15.1 million (QR55 million) payout per inheritor as compensation for the pain and suffering experienced by the deceased. These further requests for compensation will be decided by Qatar’s Civil Court.

UPDATE | 12:15pm

Al Jazeera English is quoting court officials who say the appeals process could last between eight and 12 months, during which time all of the defendants will be free.

This news is causing residents to express skepticism on social media, with some doubting that any of the sentenced parties will actually serve their jail time.

UPDATE | 11:45am

Relatives of the victims have been giving their reaction to the verdict.

The courtroom was packed this morning, with many of the victims’ families inside to hear the verdict in person.

When the “guilty” verdict was announced, Abd Elmasseih Antonios, father of two year old Evana, told Doha News he wanted to jump to his feet with joy, and that one of the other parents had to calm him down.

Police officers in the courtroom had to call for quiet so that the full verdict could be read, he said.

Meanwhile, an official joint statement from all of the families welcomes the verdict, whilst still calling for the release of the official report into the fire. It says:

“We are pleased that the court has chosen to find five people responsible. Today is a day to remember. To remember the 19 innocent people, including 13 of our beautiful children, killed last year in Villaggio.

We are still awaiting to know what happened on 28 May 2012. The trial only gave us some answers. We still have more questions.”


In an unprecedented move, a Doha court has today sentenced five of the Villaggio fire trial defendants to jail time for Involuntary Manslaughter, whilst clearing two defendants of all charges.

Four have been sentenced to six years in prison, the maximum allowable for the charge.

They are:

  • Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar’s Ambassador to Belgium and co-owner of Gympanzee
  • Iman Al-Kuwari, daughter of Qatar’s culture minister and co-owner and manager of Gympanzee
  • Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al-Rabban, Villaggio’s Chairman
  • Tzoulios Tzouliou, the Manager of Villaggio

One further defendant, Mansour Nasir Fazzaa al-Shahwani from the Ministry of Business and Trade, has been sentenced to five years. He was responsible for giving Gympanzee its permit.

Two others, Rima Itani, the mall’s Assistant Manager, and Ahmad Muhammad Abdul Rahman, the mall’s Head of Security, have been cleared of all charges.

The judge has now referred the case to the country’s civil court so that financial compensation can be decided upon.

Appeal rules

Sources inside the court have told Doha News that Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al Thani and Iman Al-Kuwari left the court room before the verdict was read out.

Qatari law says that defendants have two weeks to appeal the verdict, meaning that they can walk free from court until their application for an appeal is accepted or denied.

Culpability

During the trial, witnesses testified that the government had been fining Villaggio repeatedly since 2008 for using a highly toxic, flammable paint in its mall decorations.

The court also heard that sprinklers, which would have stopped the smoke, didn’t appear to be functioning. It heard that Villaggio officials did not respond to requests from the fire alarm and sprinkler system companies to perform much-needed maintenance on the mall equipment, as recently as the week of the fire.

There was also much focus on Gympanzee, and whether it had violated the terms of its commercial license. Documentation shows that Gympanzee was licensed by the Ministry of Business and Trade for six business activities, including as a playroom for children, rather than as a nursery.

The distinction is important, parents told Doha News, because if it was a properly licensed nursery, Civil Defense officials would have been aware that there were children inside and would have worked to get them out quickly. Firefighters have said they did not initially know that the mall had a nursery or that children were trapped inside.

Safety lacking

On May 28, 2012, 19 expats – including 13 children, four Gympanzee employees and two firefighters – died after smoke from an electrical fire at a nearby shop spread to Gympanzee, trapping its inhabitants and eventually suffocating them.

Since that time, the country has been working to shore up safety in public and private spaces, including malls, apartment buildings and children’s nurseries.

But according to fire experts interviewed by Doha News, inexperience, a lack of a developed safety culture and a bottom-line mindset have hindered Qatar’s efforts in this regard.

For more about the fire, the aftermath and its consequences, see our in-depth report, Villaggio Fire: A Tragedy Silenced.

Thoughts?

Credit: Photo by Shabina S. Khatri

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