Some Villaggio families drop legal representation as expenses rack up

villaggio sign

Omar Chatriwala

With reporting from Riham Sheble

Nearly a year after five people were convicted of involuntary manslaughter in a deadly fire at Villaggio mall, some of the victims’ relatives have decided to break ties with their legal representation.

Nineteen people, including 13 children, four daycare employees and two firefighters died in the 2012 fire. Lawyer Sami Abu Shaikha initially represented all of the children’s families and some of the teacher’s relatives in last year’s criminal case.

But at least three of his clients – two Spanish couples who lost their children and Louie Aban, husband of deceased accountant Maribel Orosco, stopped employing his services in 2013.

This week, three more families, who are all based here, told Doha News that they are unable to afford their lawyer because the case has been going for so long.

Slow going

The initial Villaggio trial began in September 2012, and concluded last June after 15 court sessions. The appeals process started in November 2013, with four hearings being held so far.

In a joint statement, Abd al-Masseih Antonios and Muhammad Sharabati, whose daughters Evana and Hana perished in the 2012 fire, said:

“We are deeply frustrated with the prolonged legal process. To us, this is a violation of the concept of justice. The process is exploited by the defense lawyers, who are using all techniques to stall. The same witnesses are called in to more than one session.

The same questions are being asked over and over again. We feel that we are shouldering a huge financial burden due to such pranks. This is why we ended our legal representation with our lawyer.”

The South African parents of 18-month-old Omar Emraan, one of the 13 children who died of smoke inhalation after being trapped in upstairs daycare Gympanee, have also dropped Abu Shaikha’s services.

Blood money

In addition to the ongoing criminal case, some of the victims’ families have filed court claims against the defendants for not delivering the standard QR200,000 blood money payment for each person who died in the fire.

The criminal court ordered insurance companies of the defendants to make the payments last June, but no money has been forthcoming.

Abu Shaikha continues to represent several families who are not in Doha, including the mother of 29-year-old Gympanzee employee Shameega Charles in South Africa; the parents of 2-year-old Zeinah Aouani in the US, the parents of four-year-old Ye Mengling in China; and the parents of two-year-old triplets Lillie, Jackson & Willsher Weekes in New Zealand.

Speaking to Doha News, father Martin Weekes said:

“We are carefully following the appeals process. We are currently requesting that ‘blood money’ to be paid to all families of the victims. Some defendants are stalling this process and blocking the insurance company from paying.

We are consulting both in Qatar and internationally on all additional legal action to ensure that those found guilty are punished appropriately. It frustrates us that the international media report that those have found guilty are imprisoned. Not one person has spent any time in prison – indeed the vast majority are still at work – including some representing the Government of the State of Qatar.”

Also pending is a civil compensation claim for punitive damages. Speaking to Doha News, Abu Shaikha said while he is no longer representing some families with the criminal case, he might still provide assistance on this claim, which cannot be filed until the appeals process is complete.

Meanwhile, the prosecutor will continue to advocate on behalf of the victims as the process continues.

The next appellate session will be held on April 7.

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