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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”