Parents hope for ‘justice’ after Qatar court orders Villaggio fire retrial

Villaggio Mall

Omar Chatriwala

Villaggio Mall

Five people who were convicted and then acquitted of involuntary manslaughter following the deadly 2012 Villaggio Mall fire will again face trial for their roles in the tragedy, Qatar’s highest court has ruled.

The Court of Cassation said this morning that it is overturning an October decision by the appeal court to acquit the defendants and ordering a retrial, legal sources said.

The latest ruling means that Villaggio’s chairman and manager, a municipal employee and the co-owners of Gympanzee daycare, where 19 people died will now face a third trial. The case is expected to be heard by the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Cassation judgment follows a rare public statement in November by Qatar’s Attorney General, ordering prosecutors to appeal the acquittal.

The morning’s news came as a relief to some of the parents whose children died in the fire. Speaking to Doha News, Abd al-Masseih, who lost his two-year-old daughter Evana in the fire, said:

“It restores our faith in the Qatari judicial system. It was utterly absurd that our children and their teachers would tragically die without anyone found responsible.”

2013 conviction

According to an official government investigation, the Villaggio fire was sparked by faulty wiring of a fluorescent light in the mezzanine of Nike, a sporting goods store.

Villaggio fire damage

Supplied

Villaggio fire damage

As the fire spread, the smoke caused the victims – including 13 children – to become trapped and suffocate inside Gympanzee daycare, which was located on the upper floor of the mall.

Today’s Court of Cassation ruling is the latest legal twist in a series of hearings dating back to September 2012.

Since then, lawyers have argued over Villaggio’s culpability, citing the ineffectiveness of its fire suppression system and the flammable materials used in the mall’s construction, as well as whether Gympanzee was properly licensed.

In June 2013, Qatar’s criminal court convicted four people of involuntary manslaughter:

  • 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.

Additionally, 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.

Those convictions were appealed and a new round of hearings got underway in November 2013.

Court of Appeals

Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

Court of Appeals

That trial dragged on for nearly two years due to defendants failing to appear, lawyers requesting more time to cross-examine witnesses and a change in judges.

The case concluded in October with the acquittal of the five defendants.

Court of Appeal ruling

In his judgment, presiding judge Abdalrahman al-Sharafi said at the time that he disregarded testimony from the family members of the victims during the initial criminal trial, arguing that one cannot be a witness and a plaintiff in the same case.

This had serious implications for one of the key questions considered by the court: Was Gympanzee an improperly licensed nursery, as prosecutors and several parents argued, or a drop-in recreation area for children as the co-owners’ defense attorney asserted?

The distinction matters, parents of the victims previously told Doha News, because Civil Defense officials could have worked to rescue the young children more quickly had they known they were inside when the fire first broke out.

Additionally, the onus on Gympanzee was lower because rules for activity centers are more lenient than for nurseries. For example, activity centers can be located on an upper story of a building.

Families of the victims stand outside Court 9, awaiting a final verdict

Chantelle D'mello

Families of the victims stand outside Court 9, awaiting a final verdict

In his ruling, al-Sharafi concluded Gympanzee was an entertainment center, clearing its operators of negligence charges.

He also ruled that Villaggio’s firefighting pumps were working adequately and ruled that testimony regarding the flammable and toxic characteristics of the mall’s paint and decoration was inadmissible as evidence.

Next steps

The Court of Cassation’s grounds for ordering a new trial are not clear. It’s also not known when the new round of hearings will commence.

However, the parents of the victims said they hope the retrial will soon get underway and come to a quick conclusion:

“My hope now is for the retrial not to take another number of painful years. I hope for swift justice this time around. Only then will our children rest in peace,” Abd al-Masseih said.

Thoughts?

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