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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?

A taxi queue at City Center Mall.

Kelly Wright / Doha News

A taxi queue at City Center Mall.

One of the most popular places to catch a taxi in West Bay / Dafna is going to be overhauled to include a climate-controlled waiting area with kiosks.

But the new area, inside City Center Mall’s parking garage, may not be ready in time for the warmer summer months this year, so shopping center officials have plans to install cooling vents once the temperature rises.

“We will make sure to take care of our customers waiting for taxis this summer,” City Center director Joerg Harengerd told Doha News.

Up until early 2014, taxis would pick up passengers from a service lane along the north side of the mall.

City Center Mall

Kelly Wright / Doha News

City Center Mall

However, the government ordered the taxi stand be moved over safety concerns, due to the traffic congestion and large volume of passengers coming from the busy mall and surrounding buildings.

Harengerd said the move has been a success and has created a more efficient environment for passengers to catch cabs.

Challenges

In the parking garage, there are separate lines for Mowasalat taxis and Sydney Limousine Service. Harengerd said Mowasalat recently started to send marshalls to regulate the flow of vehicles.

On average, between 500 and 600 taxis depart the mall each day. Busier days can see 900 vehicles, according to Harengerd.

However, some challenges remain.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Penny Yi Wang / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Unlicensed taxis still attempt to solicit customers around the mall’s perimeter, contributing to traffic jams. Harengerd said the mall is in contact with police who patrol the area as a deterrent.

Mowasalat also appears to have trouble matching supply with demand at times. While Harengerd said most passengers are able to immediately board a cab, but other times passengers must wait in line for some 30 minutes.

However, speaking to Doha News, one cab driver said that it is usually the taxis waiting for customers:

“Sometimes I come in and get a customer right away, but many times I have had to wait up to one hour to pick up a fare,” one said.

Other malls

Despite the hiccups, the scene at City Center is far more orderly than some of the country’s other large malls.

A lineup of vehicles at Villaggio Mall.

Kelly Wright / Doha News

A lineup of vehicles at Villaggio Mall.

Villaggio Mall – where Doha Metro construction has closed a large portion of the shopping center’s parking lot – suffers from serious traffic congestion at peak periods.

With no designated taxi stand, taxis and private drivers constantly blocking the driving lanes around the mall, making it even more difficult for motorists to maneuver.

Speaking to Doha News, several security guards say they often see vehicles backed up out of the lot and onto surrounding roads.

“Every gate is the same with taxis waiting and blocking the driving lanes. We work all day trying to get them to keep moving, but many do not want to leave until they pick up a passenger,” said one guard.

“We let them stay for a minute or two, but then they must move on. The weekends are the worst because traffic gets very backed up, but they have no taxi stand to go to. If they did they would go there and leave this area alone.”

Ezdan Mall

Ezdan Holding Group

Ezdan Mall

A few of the other malls around Doha such as Landmark Mall and Ezdan Mall have small designated lanes for taxis. However, they typically only feature a few spots, forcing other taxis and private drivers to circle the mall and contribute to congestion.

Hyatt Plaza, however, has an air-conditioned waiting zone with individual areas for men and women as well as couches and a TV.

What’s your strategy on getting a taxi from a mall? Thoughts?

Villaggio Mall

Omar Chatriwala

Villaggio Mall

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.

No answers

The scene inside Villaggio following the fire.

Omar Chatriwala

The scene inside Villaggio following the fire.

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.

The ash from the May 28 fire remains around a fire alarm at Villaggio.

The ash from the May 28 fire remains around a fire alarm at Villaggio.

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.

Decoration concerns

In another rehash of past trials, the court also covered mall safety yesterday.

Gadget Dan / Flickr

Villaggio Mall

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.

Abdelmasseih Antonios with his late daughter Evana.

Abdelmasseih Antonios

Abdelmasseih Antonios with his late daughter Evana.

“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.

Thoughts?