A sporting goods store at Villaggio Mall that caught fire in 2012 and led to the deaths of 19 people lacked the necessary Civil Defense permits, an official confirmed in court yesterday.
The information, which was never apparently introduced into testimony before, once again raised questions about why Nike was not among the individuals and companies charged in connection with the deadly blaze.
Those who were convicted of involuntary manslaughter include two mall officials, a government employee and the owners of Gympanzee, the improperly licensed upstairs nursery in which 13 children, four employees and two firefighters suffocated during the fire.
The convicts face five to six years in jail, but remain free as they appeal their sentences. During the latest appeal court hearing yesterday, Nike’s culpability was again brought up by the defense.
According to an official investigation into the Villaggio fire, the blaze was caused by faulty wiring of a fluorescent light in the mezzanine of Nike.
The report also found that the store’s employees failed to extinguish the fire before it spread.
In response to questions from defense attorneys yesterday, a Civil Defense lieutenant who heads up inspections said:
“Nike didn’t have a permit from the prevention department at Civil Defense.” He added that the shop was not the only store in Villaggio operating without a license.
But the disclosure still evoked frustration from the defense’s side.
“We’ve been trying to bring (Nike) in (as a defendant) from the very start,” the defense lawyer representing Gympanzee’s co-owners said in an exchange with the prosecutor.
“If Nike wasn’t licensed properly, why is the court only going after Gympanzee for not being properly licensed?” Villaggio’s lawyer later asked.
Nursery or play area?
Also during yesterday’s six-hour hearing, debate continued over the legal status of Gympanzee. At issue during both the criminal trial and the appeal is whether Gympanzee was actually a play area for kids, as its license stated, or a nursery. The lower court ruled it was the latter and that Gympanzee was operating illegally.
Parents have previously told Doha News that the distinction was important 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.
During the previous appeal hearing in February, the court examined photos of Gympanzee and observed posters of the alphabet on the daycare’s wall, as well as a blackboard.
That materials prompted the judge to note that Gympanzee contained items that appeared to be for “educational and recreational purposes” – a point that supported the notion that it was operating as a nursery, rather than just a children’s play area and temporary babysitting service.
However, the Civil Defense witness said during yesterday’s court session that a more objective criteria exists that determines the nature of the business. He said any business that takes care of children aged three years old or under is automatically considered a nursery.
The youngest of the Villaggio Mall fire victims was 18 months old.
In another rehash of past trials, the court also covered mall safety yesterday.
Each individual store inside a mall requires its own license to operate, but Villaggio Mall itself must also have a permit.
The Civil Defense witness said the shopping center received its license even though concerns about the flammable and toxic characteristics of its paint and decorations were documented by inspectors prior to its 2006 opening, as well as in a review two years later.
When asked why Civil Defense didn’t order the decorations be removed, the lieutenant said he filed his observations and recommendations in reports to his superiors.
Verdict far off
Following a relatively speedy one-year criminal trial, the appeal sessions started in November 2013.
However, as hearings became bogged down by witnesses and defendants failing to show up and perceived stalling tactics on the part of lawyers, family members of the victims continue to express frustration with the slow-moving pace of the judicial proceedings.
Raghda Kabbani, who lost her three-year-old daughter Hana in the fire, walked out of the courtroom yesterday after hearing approximately 20 minutes of testimony.
“As soon as I entered the courtroom and started to listen to the insinuation made by the defense lawyer, and how one question was asked in a number of different ways, I started feeling my heart pounding and my arms throbbing with pain. 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.
Others, however, said they thought the judges were doing a better job at keeping the lawyers on-topic.
“It’s clear from yesterday’s hearing that the panel of judges have a better command of the case and I’m hoping that from now on things will move at a faster pace,” said Abdelmasseih Antonios, who lost his two-year-old daughter Evana.
“I could also see the presiding judge acting in a firmer way towards the defense lawyers when they were clearly stalling the hearing,”
However, there were signs during yesterday’s session that a verdict is still many months away.
In a rare but not unprecedented move, one of the judges said the court plans to call its own expert witnesses before issuing a verdict.
Meanwhile, the lawyer for Gympanzee has previously indicated he plans to call roughly a half-dozen witnesses of his own.
The appeal trial is scheduled to resume on May 10 with the testimony of more witnesses called by the lawyer representing Villaggio.
Surely all the court has to do is ask the parents if they handed over their children believing it to be a nursery or a play area. Did they take them there regularly or was it a one-off visit?
My sister frequented the place I never took my kid… She’s drop them before she went shopping.. To her it was a play area to drop your kids for four hours a day… I’m not sure of other parents saw this as a day care center or play area or nursery… But great question.
One way to establish that was if the parents paid monthly invoices and/or was any material handed to parent stating he place was a play area or nursery.. A broucher or receipt
A play area to drop your kids off for four hours a day in the hands of someone else who takes responsibility for them sounds very much like a nursery to me whereas a play area would be somewhere where parents could take and supervise their kids whilst they use the play area facilities. However, I can’t understand why the distinction is so important because even a play area should have adequate protective installations and safe means of escape which this area clearly lacked. If it was indeed licenced as a play area then Qatar really needs to look at whether it’s regulations for play areas inside buildings are adequate.
The distinction is important in this case because at the time the regulation for a play area was very different than that of a nursery. Basically the owners would not have been charged if the judge found the place to be a play area because it met the requirements of a play area which are much lower than that of a nursery … Their guilty based on a technicality of needing additional safety precautions for into be a nursery
During the lower court hearings, several of the victims’ parents testified that they thought Gympanzee was a nursery, and presented receipts etc to that effect. Most of the people who lost their kids there were regularly dropping them off each day, as opposed to a few hours at a time while shopping.
They thought it was… If my child was killed and and I wanted to see as many people as I believed to be responsible root in jail if think that too..
My question was it stated that it was a nursery in any material like a recipt or a website ?
One more question did they pay on a daily bases on hours spent ? Or on a monthly basis ?
Why are people trying to double guess what was ruled by the courts, it was operating as a nursery and had staffed employed for that reason, it was advertised and recommended on a popular mothers website as a nursery. This whole trial is a fiasco, led by lawyers playing games and the defendants, who were found guilty, not abiding by the laws of the country. This will go on ad infinitum unless the powers that be say enough is enough. I feel so sorry for the families of all of the deceased having to go through this debacle of a court case
I remember this quote, from after the fire:
“the state will show no leniency and will punish anyone who fell short in performing his duty”.
The defendants and their lawyers have every right to look for reduced sentences. It is the court’s duty to keep them in check and disallow any attempt to play games, waste time, etc. The fact that defendants could not be even bothered to attend casts doubt on the court’s ability to do the job. The only hope, as you said, is that one day the powers that be will say “enough is enough”.
It’s absolutely disgusting how this has been delayed and delayed and delayed.
When the sentence was handed down in June 2013, the court officials are quoted as saying that the appeal process “was expected to last between eight and 12 months”.
What a joke.
This nursery/day care center issue was debated over and over 2 years ago. So long ago, I guess, that people have forgotten what was said on the matter.
So true …… lets play the keep it going game untill no one is left who can remember.
Let’s keep playing the game until we can find a suitably foreign person who will be entirely responsible and completely absolve any responsibility from those people who are the majority owners/operators in this case.
Well then that settles it
Settles it for you and I, but why is the court wasting everybody’s time and allowing this argument to go on???
Cause that’s why you pay a lot of money for lawyers to do…
Yes go after the sports shops owners, one must be Qatari with at least a 51% stake, so let’s see him and the manager in court and charged with criminal negligence and operating an unlicensed premises.
I’ve always said, Nike store manager and owner both should be on the stand with the rest of the defendent.. It was their crappy non complaint after market flourcant lights which started the fire
I would have thought there was also justification there for going after Nike in a US court…
The real issue for me is whether the fire resulted in any increase in general consciousness of fire safety in Qatar. The experience of my office with it’s locked fire-exit doors which I’ve tirelessly complained about is a pretty good immediate indicator, and what I’ve seen in some hotels is pretty dispiriting.
FYI 25.5% for two Qataris and 49% for one expat is also possible according to the law. Either way, someone should be held responsible.
And how do you go about it if the owner is in, say, Benelux?
Operating without a valid licence is not uncommon here. I am a restaurant manager and my store currently does not have one, half of the stores in the mall currently operate on expired licences! I cannot do anything to get it renewed as you just have to wait for civil defence to show up and that could be between now and 2022! The system is crazy, you should need a valid licence to be open, otherwise what is the point in having licences?
It’s like the roads – if you have wasta there is no point in having a license.
No so much the system is crazy, more there is no system.
Well, there is a difference between a delayed renewal and operating without a license, causing death
So if I understand correctly if the judge had ruled the area was not a nursery but a play area then the owners would have had the right license to operate and not held guilty? But since the judge ruled it was in fact a nursery then they are found to be non compliant and therefore guilty ??
If I was a parent I’m not sure I could attend court… Honestly I’d probably jump someone wrap my hands around there neck and not let them go till they are dead or someone knocks me out on the head
Calm down Rambo.
Knowing how elaborative the commercial licensing system is in the Middle East it seems that a business owner would have to be an expert in risk analysis when applying for a license. Imagine that one of us wants to apply for commercial license to operate a kids play area, the normal expectation would be that the authorities would lay down the requirements for licensing such a business and safety requirements should be one of those requirements. I fail to understand why safety requirements for a play area should be any less than those for a nursery. Are the lives of kids playing in a play area any less important than if they where attending a nursery? Im not sure how many people have actually gone through a license renewal process. I have and the process required an inspection of the premises by civil defense. If that really did happen then why did civil defense ignore 1- the drawings of the mall didn’t show the Gympanzee on the plans and 2- why didn’t civil defense highlight the violation of commercial licensing . If the authorities allowed it then a business owner is simply help liable for this tragic accident due to the lack of authority implementation of their owners regulations and mall management for not meeting the minimum safety requirements. Sorry for the long response, but too many heads should role here.
This is a quote from the higher authority on the official Villaggio investigation report –
“Some government agencies have not exercised their powers in public safety, especially in cases of “grave breaches,” states the report, adding that deficiencies in fire standards extend beyond malls and into other building in Qatar.”
This is echoed in the evidence above so why then are none of these government agencies being prosecuted?
This has been a really painful story for the past few years and while we wish for a quick and transparent trial, we hope the parents and families of this lost will have just closure. I read the questions about wether or not Gympanzee was operating as a daycare or playing area and I say what difference dose it make? The fact that it is a play area or a nursery means it is a business that will have human beings in it and should be clearly marked on the mall drawings once licensed. The mall drawings didn’t seem to show the location in the drawings and that si what the civil defense personnel could not locate it or locate a nearby unit to enter through it to save these innocent kids and teachers. The mall failed in updating their drawings and the civil defense people failed in ensuring that the location is marked on the drawings when their license came up for renewal. I highly doubt that the owner of Gympanzee would have maintained a business in its present states if she was warned about the difference between operating as play area or nursery and moreover told that operating under one of the two could mean that she would not be found by civil defense rescue workers in case of an fire. It does not make sense.
The business model you seem to advocate, i.e. that someone else should tell the busy, incompetent or lazy owner/manager how to manage his/her business, what the business requirements are, warn about risks, etc., is not uncommon in Qatar. But who is supposed to tell local owners/managers how to manage? Who should have warned Gympanzee’s manager? Was that the responsibility of the Government, the Chamber of Commerce, her friends, her driver or perhaps her housemaid? I suggest that if you own a business and decide to manage it yourself, it is your duty to manage it properly. In this particular case, way before opening the facility, the manager should have asked herself if Gympanzee WAS SAFE for the children and its staff. It doesn’t matter if later on it was categorized as play area, nursery, day care, school, whatever. You don’t have to be an expert to conclude that it was never safe and no effort was ever made to change that.
Play area or nursery there were people/kids inside and they needed help,help that did not arrive in time. It was in a terrible place as well. One day I put my daughter there so I could tend to some things in a speedier manner,but after 5 minutes I returned to get her because it didn’t seem right for her to be there. I feel for those who were caught there that day.