After months of delays, attorneys representing five people sentenced to jail after the deadly 2012 Villaggio Mall fire have dropped requests to call more witnesses and asked to present their closing arguments before Ramadan in June.
The move followed an outburst in court yesterday by a defense lawyer after the judge ordered him to limit the scope of his questions to keep the pace of the proceedings moving briskly.
Sunday’s hearing took place nearly three weeks after Qatar’s Emir reportedly told the prime minister of New Zealand that he is “utterly committed to making sure those who are responsible will be held to account” for the deadly fire.
May 28 marks the third anniversary of the blaze, in which 19 people died, including two-year-old triplets from New Zealand, after being trapped inside the mall’s Gympanzee daycare center.
No explanation was given during the hearing for the abrupt change of pace in the proceedings. However, international legal experts have previously argued that Qatar’s justice system is susceptible to political influence.
Yesterday’s session sparked mixed reactions from the family members of those who died in the fire. Many have previously expressed frustration with the slow-moving appeals process, which began in November 2013 following the criminal conviction of five individuals for involuntary manslaughter.
“I am content that the final arguments are scheduled to begin in less than a month,” Abdelmasseih Antonios, who lost his two-year-old daughter Evana, told Doha News. “This was a very pleasant surprise. I just hope that a verdict will be passed before the court recess, so we don’t have to wait until September.”
Others, however, said the previous delays had already tarnished the proceedings.
“The fact that the trial is finally starting to move quickly does not make me happy,” said Louie Aban, whose wife was an accountant at Gympanzee.
“I am already very angry for having had to wait for almost two years for the Court of Appeal to make a decision … I just want to see the people responsible for (my) little boy losing his mother and me losing the love my life punished.”
The three witnesses called Sunday all provided testimony that had largely been heard during the criminal trial.
A fire expert from the Ministry of Interior’s criminal laboratory said the fire started in a ceiling light fixture on the mezzanine level of a Nike store inside Villaggio. However, due to the extensive fire damage, he could not pinpoint a specific cause beyond determining that it was an electrical defect.
His testimony was followed by a Civil Defense lieutenant who prepared an internal report in 2008 for his superiors that noted the decorations inside Villaggio were made in part from materials that may be flammable.
He also noted in his report that mall officials had not responded to his request made months earlier for engineering and architectural documents related to the shopping center’s windows, ceilings and decorations.
The defense lawyer representing Villaggio’s owner attempted to start his questioning by asking the witness about his credentials and how long he’s worked for Civil Defense, but was instructed by the judge to focus on the 2008 report.
Taken aback, the lawyer asked that the judge’s directions be noted in the official record of proceedings so “when it is time for this trial to go to the Court of Cassation, it can see that the appeal court was unjust.”
Those comments didn’t sit well with the prosecutor.
“This defense attorney is terrorizing the court and threatening to take the case to the Court of Cassation,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”
The judge ultimately allowed the lawyer to proceed with his line of questioning after getting in a shot of his own, saying the lawyer’s threat to take the matter to the Court of Cassation suggests “the lawyer does not trust his own ability to argue the defendant’s case.”
Nursery or play area?
The final witness to appear Sunday was a woman who used to take her children to Gympanzee prior to the fire.
She was called by the defense lawyer representing Gympanzee’s owners, who is trying to prove that the facility was a play area for children rather than a nursery.
The distinction is important, parents of the children who died in the fire have said, 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.
The witness said she took her children to Gympanzee for birthday parties, arts and crafts activities as well as for short-term babysitting while she shopped in the mall.
“For me, it was an entertainment center,” she said in response to a judge’s question.
However, the prosecutor challenged the credibility of the witness by noting that she had attended previous court sessions as a friend of Gympanzee’s co-owner, Iman Al-Kuwari. The prosecutor made a similar claim during the lower court hearing.
After missing several recent sessions, Al-Kuwari was present for Sunday’s hearing. Her husband, who is also Qatar’s ambassador to Belgium and also faces jail time for involuntary manslaughter, once again was not present for the court session.
His lawyer has previously explained his absence by saying his job duties prevented him from attended. On Sunday, however, he said his client was unable to fly for medical reasons.
The prosecutor and the defense attorney representing Villaggio’s owner are scheduled to give their closing arguments on June 7.
They will be followed on June 15 – days before Ramadan begins – by the defense attorneys representing Gympanzee’s co-owners, the mall’s manager and an employee of the Ministry of Business and Trade who gave Gympanzee its permit.
It is not clear when a verdict will be issued. Legal sources said the Court of Appeal would likely begin its summer break at the end of June.