Qatar Emir promises ‘justice’ over Villaggio Mall fire deaths

Villaggio Mall

Omar Chatriwala

Villaggio Mall

Renewing a pledge he made after a deadly fire in Qatar that killed 19 people in 2012, Qatar’s Emir has said that he is “utterly committed to making sure those who are responsible will be held to account.”

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani apparently reiterated that promise to New Zealand’s Prime Minister this week, following a meeting in Istanbul.

John Key asked the Emir about the fire on behalf of New Zealanders Jane and Martin Weekes, parents of triplets killed in the blaze. The New Zealand Herald quotes Key as saying:

“He absolutely assured me he wanted to see justice done, that he is personally following the situation and is committed to seeing justice completed for the family. I hope the Weekes family can take some heart from that.”

Sheikh Tamim, who was Heir Apparent when the fire happened, met with several of the victims’ relatives shortly after the fire, promising swift accountability.

Abdelmasseih Antonios, who lost his two-year-old daughter Evana in the fire, previously told Doha News:

“The Emir of Qatar had promised us justice and that the power and wealth of any of the defendants would not obstruct it. We are still waiting. The fire that killed our children is still burning in our hearts and only justice can extinguish it. The most painful thing is that we feel that no one cares anymore.”

State of the case

During the lower criminal court proceedings, safety officers testified that Villaggio Mall was fined repeatedly since 2008 for using a highly toxic, flammable paint in its decorations.

Day after the Villaggio fire.

Omar Chatriwala

Day after the Villaggio fire.

The court also heard that sprinklers, which would have stopped the smoke, didn’t appear to be functioning at the time of the fire. Civil Defense officials added 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 a long debate about Gympanzee, the daycare where 13 children, four employees and two firefighters suffocated. Documentation showed that it was licensed by the Ministry of Business and Trade for six business activities, including as a playroom for children, rather than as a nursery.

Lower criminal court in Doha

Shabina S. Khatri

Lower criminal court in Doha

Drawing on this evidence, a Doha court convicted five people of involuntary manslaughter about a year after the fire.

That included two mall officials, a government employee and the owners of Gympanzee. The convicts face five to six years in jail, but remain free as they appeal their sentences.

Over the past two years, that appeal has been moving at a glacial pace, much to the frustration of the victim’s relatives.

During the latest hearing last month, Raghda Kabbani, who lost her three-year-old daughter Hana in the fire, ended up leaving the courtroom mid-session in frustration.

“It started getting difficult for me to breathe, and I decided to walk out and leave court knowing that the mockery of justice will continue at the hands of lawyers,” she told Doha News.

In a statement this week, the Weekes thanked their prime minister for speaking to the Emir about the case.

They also called for the removal of Gympanzee co-owner Sheikh Ali Bin Jasim Bin Thani Al Thani from his post as Qatar’s ambassador to Belgium, which he has held since before the fire.

The couple said:

“While the Weekes understand that Al Thani and his wife are entitled to appeal their convictions, they do not believe it is appropriate for a person convicted of killing their children to be serving in a prestigious diplomatic post in the meantime.”

The next hearing will be held on May 10.

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