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Court of Appeals

Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

Court of Appeals

Qatar’s judiciary heard nearly 100,000 cases last year, and is struggling under an ever-increasing docket amid a growing population.

The number of cases was up by about 7,000 (or 8 percent) from 2014, and 80,933 (about 80 percent) were resolved, according to the Supreme Judicial Council.

That’s on par with the clearing rate in each of the last four years, despite the increasing load.

Number of court cases heard in Qatar

By Shabina S. Khatri

Number of court cases heard in Qatar

Some of the most common types of lawsuits heard in the courts, including the lower criminal court and Court of Cassation, included check fraud, environmental issues and traffic cases, QNA reports.

In a statement, the President of the Judicial Supreme Council said that he “highly appreciated the efforts being exerted by the Magistrates and their assistants, calling on them to commit to achieve prompt and efficient resolutions.”

Overcrowding

For years, Qatar has faced pressure both at home and abroad to revamp its judicial system, which was formed a quarter century ago when the population was less than a million people.

Most mornings, the scene at the lower criminal court in Al Sadd is chaotic, with at least 50 people crowding into a courtroom to wait for their cases to be heard.

Lower criminal court in Doha

Shabina S. Khatri

Lower criminal court in Doha

Oftentimes, hearings end with a postponement, with the person again needing to appear before the court at a later date.

Even if a trial proceeds, testimony must be given slowly, as all official notes are handwritten by a clerk sitting near the judges.

Independence concerns

In addition to overcrowding, Qatar’s courts suffer from a lack of independence, making it difficult to protect the human rights of all residents, a UN official said last year.

Gabriela Knaul

Peter Kovessy

Gabriela Knaul

Following an official visit to Qatar, Gabriela Knaul, the UN’s special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, filed a report that called for more Qataris to become judges.

“Non-Qatari judges can be dismissed at any time, which renders them extremely vulnerable to pressures from any side, including from the public prosecution, lawyers and the executive,” she said.

However, she conceded that no specific cases of suspect dismissals have been reported.

Thoughts?

Court of Appeals and Cassation

Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

Court of Appeals and Cassation

In an angry outburst yesterday, a man facing the death penalty for the murder of British teacher Lauren Patterson has accused prosecutors of tampering with evidence presented to the appeals court.

At particular issue appears to be selective editing of a video reenactment that supposedly represents Badr Hashim al-Jabar’s account of what happened the night the woman died.

The video, which was previously presented in a 2014 lower court hearing, was filmed under the prosecutor’s supervision several days after al-Jabar was arrested. It showed the defendant taking investigators through a villa and asserting that he stabbed Patterson in self-defense during a struggle.

Badr Hashim Khamis Abdullah Al-Jabar

Via Alison Patterson

Badr Hashim Khamis Abdullah al-Jabar

But in court yesterday, al-Jabar said the re-enactment was filmed multiple times, and that the version played in court showed the prosecutor’s narrative, rather than his version of events.

“The video is not the same!” al-Jabar shouted in Arabic at the prosecutor from inside a glass prisoner’s box at the Court of Appeals. “I swear by God it isn’t the same. If you’re a Muslim, put your hand on the Quran and swear by it that it’s the same video (and not edited).”

The prosecutor responded by rejecting the suggestion that the video was edited.

Fielding a question from the judge, the prosecutor added that he never instructed the defendant to act out a specific narrative, but rather al-Jabar’s own account of events.

Ongoing hearings

Patterson, 24, was last seen alive leaving a La Cigale nightclub in October 2013 with al-Jabar and his friend, Mohamed Abdallah Hassan Abdul Aziz.

Her burned remains were found hours later in the desert.

Flowers laid where Lauren Patterson's remains were found.

Alison Patterson

Flowers laid where Lauren Patterson\’s remains were found.

In 2014, a criminal court sentenced al-Jabar to death for Patterson’s murder and handed down a three-year prison sentence to Abdul Aziz for helping his friend burn Patterson’s body, as well as damaging and erasing evidence.

Abdul Aziz has since served his sentence and been released.

Qatar’s Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s verdict in 2015. However, earlier this year, the ruling was vacated by the Court of Cassation, which ordered a new trial.

Yesterday was the third scheduled hearing in the retrial.

Al-Jabar’s lawyer spent much of yesterday’s hearing attempting to cast doubt on the validity of the statements his client gave to investigators. He also suggested that Patterson was drunk and acted erratically the night she died.

Solitary confinement

He said al-Jabar was held in solitary confinement for 23 days before confessing to stabbing Patterson and was prevented from speaking to a lawyer or seeing his family during that time.

“This was punishment and coercion enough for the defendant to say anything the prosecutor wanted,” the defense lawyer told the court.

The attorney argued that this tainted confession also affected the video reenactment. He highlighted how the prosecutor can be heard at one point on the recording instructing al-Jabar to “narrate to us what you told me during the investigation.”

Alison Patterson with her daughter Lauren

Alison Patterson

Alison Patterson with her daughter Lauren

The defense lawyer told the court yesterday that his client should have been free to act out his narrative of events as they “actually happened.”

While the defense lawyer claimed that prosecutors had filmed another version of the reenactment that has not been seen in court, he did not elaborate on its contents except to say that it shows al-Jabar acted in self-defense.

The prosecutor rejected all of the defense lawyer’s suggestions, including dismissing the claim that al-Jabar was held in solitary confinement for more than three weeks before he confessed.

Yesterday marked the first time that the defense lawyer argued in court that the video reenactment was selectively edited.

Alison Patterson

Shabina S. Khatri / Doha News

Alison Patterson

Patterson’s mother, Alison – who flew to Qatar from the UK for the hearing – questioned why this claim was not presented in an earlier hearing.

“I feel that the defense’s arguments change all the time,” she told Doha News. “What will they think up next time?”

Alison Patterson also expressed dismay that the hearing was forced to come to an abrupt halt because the court room was not equipped with a large screen and projector.

The trial is set to resume on Oct. 9 in a larger courtroom that has video equipment.

Thoughts?

Villaggio Mall

Omar Chatriwala

Villaggio Mall

Lawyers and judges gathered in a Qatar courtroom this morning to begin the retrial of five individuals charged in connection with the deadly 2012 Villaggio Mall.

But in a recurring theme of the legal saga that’s lasted more than three years, the proceedings were postponed because several of the defendants are currently outside Qatar and failed to appear in court.

The lawyer for Villaggio chairperson Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al-Rabban told the court that his client was currently traveling with family and was only notified of the scheduled hearing last Thursday.

Similarly, Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al Thani and his wife, Iman Al-Kuwari – the co-owners of Gympanzee daycare, where 19 people died during the fire – were also absent. Al Thani is Qatar’s ambassador to Belgium, and his lawyer told the court today that his duties required him to be out of the country.

After being notified of the absences, the judge’s panel led by Esa Ahmad Abou al-Nasr moved to reschedule the hearing to next Monday. However, the panel granted a request by lawyers for more time to prepare and set the hearing for April 24.

Qatar’s Court of Cassation ordered the retrial nearly two months ago.

What happened

The 2012 fire was caused by faulty wiring inside a fluorescent light in the mezzanine of sporting goods store Nike, according to an official inquiry.

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

The scene inside Villaggio following the fire.

Omar Chatriwala

The scene inside Villaggio following the fire.

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

In 2013, four individuals – Al-Rabban, Al Thani, Al-Kuwari as well as the Villaggio manager Tzoulios Tzouliou – were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to six years in jail.

Another defendant, municipal employee Mansour Nasir Fazzaa al-Shahwani, was convicted of forgery for providing a license to Gympanzee.

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

All were acquitted by the Court of Appeal last October, although the company that owns the shopping center was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

That meant the firm and its insurance company will still have to pay blood money compensation to the victim’s family as well as a QR20,000 fine.

However, prosecutors had charged Al-Rabban as an individual – not as a representative of his company.

Shifting the charge from Al-Rabban to the firm was one of several errors the Court of Appeal made in interpreting and applying the law, the Court of Cassation said.

Legal errors

The high court ruling – signed by Masoud Muhammad al-Amiri, the head of the Court of Cassation – agreed with all of the prosecutor’s arguments for a retrial, according to a copy recently obtained by Doha News.

It said the Court of Appeal was wrong to exclude testimony of three Gympanzee employees solely because they had not appeared as witnesses during the lower court trial. In Qatar, the Court of Cassation wrote, there is nothing written in the law that requires witnesses to appear at every stage of a court case.

Similarly, the Court of Cassation said there is nothing in the law that states a written piece of evidence should trump oral testimony, as the Appeal Court reasoned when it ruled that Gympanzee was a children’s play area – as stated on its licence – rather than a daycare, which prosecutors allege Al Rabban told them in his pre-trial interview.

Children's artwork at Gympanzee

Gympanzee/Facebook

Children’s artwork at Gympanzee

The distinction matters, family members have 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, for example.

The Court of Cassation also said it was wrong to toss out testimony given by family members of the victims. The Court of Appeal had ruled their statements were inadmissible because the witnesses were also plaintiffs in the case.

That’s wrong, the Court of Cassation ruled. The family members may be plaintiffs in a separate civil case, but it’s the prosecutor who is arguing the case against the defendants in the criminal trial.

Court of Appeals

Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

Court of Appeals

The Court of Cassation also agreed with prosecutors that the Court of Appeal applied the wrong sections of the law when it found no fault with Villaggio’s fire suppression system.

It acquitted the defendants because there was no evidence that the system had been deliberately damaged or disabled even though the actual accusation was that the defendants failed to properly maintain it.

Finally, the Court of Appeal acquitted al-Shahwani because he had no criminal intent when he renewed Gympanzee’s license without visiting the facility as required – something Court of Appeal said was common practice.

But the Court of Cassation ruled that was irrelevant. Issuing a license that requires a physical inspection without actually seeing Gympanzee is a form of cheating and considered forgery, the ruling states.

Thoughts?