Tensions rise as Villaggio fire appeal hearing drags on

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.

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