It will take another four months for Qatar’s Court of Appeal to decide whether to uphold or overturn the guilty verdicts of several individuals facing jail time after the deadly 2012 Villaggio Mall fire.
Following the final appeal hearing this week, a judge – citing the court’s workload and upcoming summer recess – set a verdict date of Oct. 26. That’s nearly two years after the appeal proceedings first got underway.
In June 2013, a lower criminal court convicted five people for their roles in the shopping center fire that killed 19 individuals, including 13 children. All of the victims died of smoke asphyxiation after being trapped inside an upstairs daycare center called Gympanzee.
Villaggio’s chairman, the mall manager and Gympanzee’s two co-owners were all convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to the maximum penalty of six years in prison.
A fifth defendant, a municipal government employee, was convicted of forgery for renewing Gympanzee’s permit without visiting the premise in person and sentenced to five years in prison.
All remain out of prison pending the appeal verdict, leading to the current trial that concluded with two sessions of closing arguments earlier this month and this week.
The defense lawyers who spoke on Monday blamed the media for “blowing things out of proportion” after the fire, which allegedly compelled the prosecutor to search for scapegoats to put on trial.
The attorneys also focused on two questions that have recurred during the appeal hearings:
- Given that the mall fire was caused by the faulty wiring of a fluorescent light in the mezzanine of Nike, why was the sporting good store, its owners or employees not charged?
- Was Gympanzee an improperly licensed nursery, as prosecutors and several parents argue, or a drop-in recreation area for children, as the co-owners’ defense attorney asserts?
The latter distinction matters, parents previously told Doha News, because if Civil Defense officials had known children were inside when the fire first broke out, they could have worked to get them out more quickly.
‘Say the truth’
The lawyer representing Gympanzee’s owners also introduced a new argument in an attempt to absolve his clients of responsibility for the 19 deaths. He argued that most of the children who were killed actually died in an ambulance or in hospital – not at the mall itself.
He based this on television footage showing CPR being performed on victims as they were taken out of the mall, as well as the fact that the autopsies were performed late that evening. The fire had broken out in the morning.
The attorney did not say how either suggestion conclusively proved the time of death of any of the victims. His theory also appeared to contradict the official investigation results and outraged several people who lost family members in the fire.
“Untrue!” Raghda Kabbani told Doha News after the hearing. She lost her daughter, three-year-old Hana Sharabati, in the fire. “This is just categorically untrue. I saw with my own two eyes the bodies of children and adults in a blue cover on the ground outside the mall.”
The same sentiment was expressed by the uncle of another victim, three-year-old Yusuf Shata, who voiced his displeasure in the middle of the court session.
“I was there. They were all dead, my nephew included,” he said. As guards started to remove him from the courtroom, he yelled at the judge, “Fear God and say the truth for once.”
The judge instructed the guards to allow the man to remain in court.
Mall manager’s role
The lawyer representing Villaggio manager Tzoulios Tzouliou presented several arguments in his closing arguments specifically related to his client.
He said Tzouliou moved to Qatar after the mall was constructed and mostly leased. Tzouliou, the attorney said, did not sign the lease with Gympanzee.
Furthermore, the lawyer said it was not the manager’s job to go back and review the government license of each business in the mall and compare it to their actual activities.
The lawyer also said the lower court made several errors in assigning blame to his client. For example, he said Villaggio’s firefighting hoses were of a sufficient length and not too short as the verdict said.
“My client did not leave or flee. He put his life in danger … (and) did all he could to make sure the mall was evacuated,” the attorney said, arguing that Tzouliou – like Villaggio’s assistant mall manager and head of security, both of whom were found not guilty by the lower court – should be exonerated.
The lawyer for municipal government employee Mansour Nasir Fazzaa al-Shahwani submitted his closing arguments in writing, telling the court that his client should have his conviction overturned.