Villaggio fire appeals hearings postponed until late October

villaggio sign

Omar Chatriwala

With reporting from Riham Sheble

Responding to a request from defense attorneys, Qatar’s appeals court has decided to postpone the Villaggio Mall fire case for another four months, sparking disappointment and dismay among several family members of those who died in the May 2012 accident.

The latest delay comes a year after a lower court found five people liable for the 19 deaths, ordering them to serve up to six years in jail.

Doha court

Shabina S. Khatri

Lower Doha court.

Those who were convicted include Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar’s Ambassador to Belgium and Iman Al-Kuwari, daughter of Qatar’s culture minister, who are co-owners of the Gympanzee childcare facility in which 13 children, four employees and two firefighters died of smoke asphyxiation.

Neither attended yesterday’s hearing, and the court was told Al Thani was away on official diplomatic business while his wife was with him, looking after their children.

The others who face jail time are Villaggio mall owner Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al Rabban and manager Tzoulios Tzouliou, and Mansour Nasir Fazzaa al-Shahwani from the Ministry of Economy and Commerce.

During a court hearing yesterday, defense attorneys for the mall’s chairman and for the co-owners of Gympanzee both asked for the postponement, saying they still needed to cross-examine witnesses who had appeared at previous appeals hearings.

Lawyers for the insurance company responsible for paying blood money compensation to the families also supported a postponement. Only a few relatives have thus far been awarded the QR200,000 per victim compensation ordered by the lower court. The insurance company has asked that the rest await the appeals decision.

The judge granted the attorneys’ request and scheduled the next session for Oct. 27.

Families’ dismay

Speaking to Doha News, many of the families of the deceased said they were surprised and disappointed by the decision.

Several have been struggling to obtain closure following the loss of their loved ones due to the long court process.

Moeneeb Emraan, a South Afican expat and father of 18-month-old Omar Emraan, said:

“My wife and I are in total disbelief. This is a travesty of justice. How can we put our faith in this process?!”

Abd Elmasseih Antonios Mina Eskandar, father of 2-year-old Evana Antonios, said the latest court hearing only further stalled any progress made since an appellate hearing in April.

Speaking to Doha News, he said, as translated from Arabic into English:

“Are we supposed to trust that those who have been found guilty will ever be punished? Some of the defendants are powerful people and this works in their advantage. They enjoy being with their children and we were deprived of ours because of their mistakes.

A big fire that claims the lives of nineteen people, thirteen of whom were children, is handled with such carelessness and prolongation. From April 7th to October 27th (the next hearing) no progress will be made. Why have the defendants not been detained pending the verdict? They were already found guilty.”

And Jane Weekes, a New Zealander and mother of two-year-old triplets Lillie, Jackson & Willsher, said:

“Last time the defendants lawyer sought and was granted a two-month adjournment so he could go on holiday, this time he requested and was granted a four-and-a-half month adjournment for summer.

The defendants’ repetitive delays continue to distress the families of the victims. We have also been told that Iman Al Kuwari, the owner of Gympanzee didn’t attend court because she was caring for her children in Belgium. This makes am absolute mockery of the fact our children were killed whilst in her care.”

Push to oust journalists

Meanwhile, defense attorneys for the chairman of Villaggio argued that journalists should be banned from reporting on the fire hearings.

The director of Al Rayyan Municipality, who was mentioned in an Al Raya article last month after not turning up to two court sessions, agreed, saying he was being slandered by the press.

However, a judge responded that the court does not control what journalists write, and those who feel they have been slandered have the right to sue the newspapers.

The judge added, though, that journalists should not report on the specifics of witness testimony, so that future accounts given by other witnesses are not compromised.

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