With reporting from Riham Sheble
In yet another delay, a new judge has been appointed to preside over the Villaggio Mall fire appeal hearings.
During the first hearing since the summer break, the judge asked lawyers yesterday to restate their primary arguments so he could be brought up to speed on the case.
The move has upset some of the relatives of the 19 people killed in the fire, who say they have watched the appeal drag on for more than 11 months.
Speaking to Doha News, Abdelmasseih Antonios, who lost his two-year-old daughter Evana in the May 2012 blaze, said:
“I am surprised that after all this time and postponement of hearings, a new judge has been appointed to preside over the case which means starting from scratch. They should pick up from where the former panel left off.”
Last June, a lower court found five people guilty of involuntary manslaughter for their roles in the fire, which claimed the lives of 13 children, four daycare center employees and two firemen.
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.
Though the defendants were ordered to serve five to six years in jail, all remain free pending the outcome of the appeal. That process got underway last November, and was immediately hit with delays after two of the defendants initially failed to show up.
The case resumed in January – gaps in trials are common in Qatar, where court hearings do not generally run on consecutive days – but was postponed again in June after defense lawyers requested more time to cross-examine witnesses.
When they marked the two-year anniversary of their loved ones’ deaths in May, many of the victims’ families said they were not hopeful for a speedy end of the case.
Some have received blood money compensation over the deaths, as ordered by the lower court, while others’ cases remain tied up in disputes. Meanwhile, high costs have prompted some families to cease legal representation altogether.
Yesterday, the new presiding judge opened the hearings by pledging to put the case back on its correct procedural course and began by inviting the defense lawyers to make oral statements outlining why they were appealing the primary verdict.
They responded by saying the deadly Villaggio blaze was just like any other fire in Qatar, except that it received sensationalized media coverage. The co-owners of Gympanzee, according to their lawyer, were victims themselves and not perpetrators.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the two Villaggio Mall officials argued that the shopping center was safe and that the incident was caused by employees of a Nike store who stored merchandise improperly, as well as Civil Defense first responders whose actions while fighting the fire made the tragedy worse.
In response to those arguments, another of the victim’s relatives expressed disbelief:
“I can’t believe … lawyers are calling this a case of media propaganda. They said that fires are an ordinary thing that happen everywhere, everyday. I really can’t believe it,” said Raghda Sharabati, who lost her three-year-old daughter Hana in the fire.
A request by the prosecutor to have the defense lawyers’ statements be considered closing arguments and a verdict date be set was denied.
Instead, the judge scheduled the next court date for Dec. 21, which would be the last opportunity for lawyers to submit requests for additional evidence or witnesses to be included in subsequent hearings.
It is not unusual for new judges to be appointed to long-standing cases in Qatar, depending on the judicial terms of their predecessors. But the delays this causes in the system can be daunting for many.
In an email to Doha News, Martin Weekes, whose two-year-old triplets Lillie, Jackson and Willsher were killed in the fire, said:
“It is frustrating and completely illogical that a judge could be changed part way through a trial process simply for administrative purposes. It’s just yet another example of how inhumanely the process is for the victims and their families.”
Future appeal sessions are expected to review footage of the fire shot by three television stations, as well as photos of the scene taken by criminal and forensic investigators.
Additionally, the court is looking for reports on decorations in the mall by the Italian manufacturer, an American laboratory and Qatar’s public works authority, Ashghal.
A separate high-profile case was also scheduled to appear before an appellate court yesterday and had to be postponed after the imprisoned defendants failed to appear for their hearing.
Three Filipino men were convicted of espionage earlier this year for passing along military and economic secrets to their home government. One received the death sentence, while the other two men were given life sentences in prison.
The Philippines government denies the charges, and the men are appealing their conviction.
However, they were not brought to the courthouse from prison, forcing the judge to reschedule the hearing for Dec. 21. No explanation for the defendants’ absence was given.