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Villaggio Mall

Omar Chatriwala

Villaggio Mall

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.

The scene inside Villaggio following the fire.

Omar Chatriwala

The scene inside Villaggio following the fire.

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.

‘Scapegoating’

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.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

HMC

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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.

Villaggio Mall

Gadget Dan / Flickr

Villaggio Mall

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.

Thoughts?

The latest Villaggio Mall fire appeal hearing left many in the courtroom in tears this week, after more than an hour was spent reviewing photos and watching TV footage taken the day of the blaze.

Five individuals were convicted for their roles in the deadly 2012 fire, in which 19 people, including 13 children, died after an electrical fire started in a Nike storeroom.

All the victims were trapped inside the Gympanzee nursery, which a criminal court ruled was not properly licensed.

As the video clips – shot primarily by Qatar TV and Al Rayyan TV – played, showing smoke billowing from the shopping center and paramedics performing CPR on several victims including what appeared to be a child’s body, several parents in court whose children died in the fire began crying.

Meanwhile, various legal representatives and spectators offered verbal interpretations of what was being shown, at times speaking over one another. This lead one defense lawyer to snap at a sobbing parent, telling her to be quiet, and a judge ejecting another parent for speaking.

Abdelmasseih Antonios with his late daughter Evana.

Abdelmasseih Antonios

Abdelmasseih Antonios with his late daughter Evana.

“My daughter died there. I lost my daughter there,” Abdelmasseih Antonios, who lost his two-year-old, Evana, told the court.

After being reprimanded by the judge, Antonios said he meant no insult.

“I have nothing but respect for the court. But no one can feel what we are going through, sitting here. They have not lost children. We have.”

He later added: “We respect the court. We’ve respected the court for almost three years. We’ve been patient for almost three years, waiting for justice to be served.”

Antonios eventually acquiesced to the judge’s instructions and reluctantly left the courtroom.

Following the hearing, Antonios told Doha News that he had been trying to offer clarification on what the video showed. However, he conceded that he was frustrated by the slow pace of hearings and questions posed by lawyers and the judge that he interpreted to suggest the blame was on the Gympanzee staff and the children for not escaping in time.

Antonios also said he was exasperated that the judge – who was appointed to the case in October, nearly a year after the appeal trial started – was going over well-established facts of the case, and that he expressed surprise at seeing holes in the mall roof that rescuers cut to bring victims out.

“It was as if he was not aware of this fact,” Antonios said.

Other evidence

Day after the Villaggio fire.

Omar Chatriwala

Day after the Villaggio fire.

Also during Thursday’s hearing, the court revisited some of the main issues raised during the criminal trial, which ended in five people – including the chairman and manager of the mall as well as the co-owners of Gympanzee – being found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to prison terms.

This included whether Gympanzee was licensed as a nursery or a playroom for children.

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.

Some of the photos displayed in court on Thursday showed posters of the alphabet on the daycare’s wall, as well as a blackboard, prompting the judge to instruct the clerk to note that Gympanzee contained materials 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.

Earlier in the five-hour hearing, the defense lawyer for Villaggio’s chairperson called as witnesses two Civil Defense employees: the general-director’s assistant, and an inspector who visited Villaggio after the fire.

Both witnesses said they didn’t have answers to many of the lawyer’s questions regarding various reports, inspections before and after the fire and whether the Gympanzee emergency exit was unobstructed the day of the fire.

Appeals court

Shabina S. Khatri

Appeals court

At one point, after being asked whether Villaggio’s fire suppression system had a supply of electricity independent of the rest of the mall, the Civil Defense inspector noted that it had been nearly three years since the incident and that “there are a lot of details that I cannot remember off the top of my head.”

During the testimony, the defense lawyer also highlighted discrepancies in maintenance reports that some said showed the water pumps connected to the mall’s fire suppression system were in need of repair.

The lawyer argued that the pump in question was actually for the landscape irrigation system outside the building and not the fire fighting equipment.

Separately, a Civil Defense employee testified seeing inspection reports before the fire that stated some of the interior decorations inside Villaggio were made of flammable materials that would emit toxic fumes if burned. The mall had been instructed to change the decorations in order to meet building regulations.

Court absence

Sheikh Ali bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar's ambassador to Belgium, gives a speech in Brussels in early February 2015 before European politicians and NATO representatives. Al Thani was the co-owner of Gympanzee and was not in court last week for an appeal hearing of his conviction of involuntary manslaughter.

Qatar News Agency

Sheikh Ali bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar’s ambassador to Belgium, gives a speech in Brussels in early February 2015 before European politicians and NATO representatives. Al Thani was the co-owner of Gympanzee and was not in court last week for an appeal hearing of his conviction of involuntary manslaughter.

Thursday’s hearing proceeded without the presence of Gympanzee’s co-owners, Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al Thani and his wife, Iman Al-Kuwari.

Al Thani is Qatar’s ambassador to Belgium and has missed many hearings for what his lawyer said were work-related engagements. The absences have previously delayed both the lower court and appeal trial’s proceedings.

Prior to the start of Thursday’s hearing, the judge told the court that a letter had been submitted saying the ambassador could not attend because he is busy preparing for a joint conference between Qatar and Belgium that will take place in March.

The other three defendants – Villaggio chairman Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al-Rabban, mall manager Tzoulios Tzouliou and Mansour Nasir Fazzaa al-Shahwani, who gave Gympanzee its permit from the Ministry of Business and Trade – were present.

The next hearing is scheduled for March 30, and is expected to include the airing of more video footage from the day of the fire, as well as witness testimony from a fire expert and a parent whose child occasionally attended Gympanzee, among other individuals.

Manal Murgus, the wife of Antonios and mother of Evana, said the delay between hearings is adding to her “disappointment and anger.”

She told Doha News:

“How frustrating it is to sit through one hearing after the other listening to the same witnesses being called in to be asked questions they had previously answered and to see lawyers running the show in court and using every stalling tactic in the book. Our children lost their lives and justice to avenge that loss is being squandered before our eyes and there is nothing we can do except wait and wait and wait.”

Thoughts?

Appeals court.

Shabina S. Khatri

Appeals court.

Emotions ran high in a Doha courtroom yesterday as the Villaggio Mall fire appeal hearing resumed, with the prosecutor and defense attorneys taking shots at each other and victims’ families lamenting the slow-moving judicial process.

The appeal has now entered its 13th month, and its pace has slowed considerably after a new judge was appointed to preside over the case in October.

In June 2013, a lower court found five people guilty of involuntary manslaughter for their roles in the May 2012 fire, which claimed the lives of 13 children, four daycare center employees and two firemen. They face five to six years in jail, but remain free pending the appeal.

Day after the Villaggio fire.

Omar Chatriwala

Day after the Villaggio fire.

The convicted individuals include Villaggio’s chairman, its manager, the co-owners of the improperly licensed Gympanzee nursery and the bureaucrat who gave the child care center its business permit.

During yesterday’s hearing, the defense attorney for the chairman requested that the court hear from seven new witnesses, including an Al Jazeera reporter who was reporting at the scene of the fire.

The attorney said that according to video footage, the journalist was standing in front of a scene that showed water pumps in the mall were operating properly at the time of the fire – a matter of dispute between the mall and Civil Defense.

Other witnesses on his list included Civil Defense employees and the director of the Italian company that decorated Villaggio.

Previously, Civil Defense officials testified that the mall’s ceiling paint was not up to fire code and spurred on the fire, as well as created smoke that made it harder for first responders to do their jobs.

Stalling tactics

At one point during the hearing, the prosecutor accused the Villaggio chairman’s attorney of applying stalling tactics by recalling witnesses to the stand and not submitting all his requests at once.

To avoid dragging the case on, the prosecutor requested that the court set a final date for defense lawyers to submit their requests. But he was rebuffed by the presiding judge, who said:

“We were taught in law school that the prosecutor is supposed to be an honorable opponent who is only invested in achieving justice. This means that the prosecutor needs to be neutral and interested only in revealing the truth which is the ultimate goal for the court.

The prosecutor should be sharing the defendants in looking for any evidence that enables justice. But the prosecutor in this case has not looked for one single piece of evidence that helped the defendants or was in their interest.”

Family reaction

Grave of Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes

Martin Weekes

Grave of Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes

Several relatives of those killed in the fire expressed dismay following yesterday’s hearing. Some unsuccessfully attempted to speak out during the session, while one stormed out in protest.

In an email to Doha News, Martin Weekes, whose two-year-old triplets Lillie, Jackson and Willsher were killed in the fire, said the hearing came at a difficult time for his family, due to the upcoming Christmas holiday.

He added:

“Christmas is also a time for hope and all we can hope for is that Qatar continues to remember those 13 innocent children, their short lives and the pure greed over safety that took them from us.

Our Christmas wish? That after 3 years Qatar acknowledges its responsibilities and the Qatari Justice system finally holds those guilty accountable.”

Louie Aban with his late wife and son, who now lives in the Philippines.

Louie Aban with his late wife and baby son, who now lives in the Philippines with relatives.

Louie Aban, the husband of Maribel Orosco, one of four Gympanzee employees killed in the fire, said:

“I feel hopeless and frustrated, but I am still determined to fight…Nineteen people died that day and someone has to be held accountable. If this doesn’t happen, then there is no justice in Qatar. Is it because none of the people died were Qatari (that their death is not important)?”

He added:

“I want the lesson to be learned that human life is not a toy that can be thrown away just like that.

I miss my wife everyday and I see my son growing up without a mother. I cannot bring back the past, but I still want justice. But I am afraid that justice delayed is justice denied.”

Abdelmasseih Antonios with his late daughter Evana.

Abdelmasseih Antonios

Abdelmasseih Antonios with his late daughter Evana.

And Abdelmasseih Antonios, who lost his two-year-old daughter Evana, said:

“Today the judge directly said that he does not care about how long the case takes as long as the rights of the accused are honored because the law holds a defendant’s right to a just trial sacred. What about the victims’ rights?

Referring to the visits that then-deputy Emir Sheikh Tamim made to the victims’ relatives after the fire, Antonios continued:

“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.”

The next hearing will be on Feb. 12, 2015.

Thoughts?