A sporting goods store at Villaggio Mall that caught fire in 2012 and led to the deaths of 19 people lacked the necessary Civil Defense permits, an official confirmed in court yesterday.
The information, which was never apparently introduced into testimony before, once again raised questions about why Nike was not among the individuals and companies charged in connection with the deadly blaze.
Those who were convicted of involuntary manslaughter include two mall officials, a government employee and the owners of Gympanzee, the improperly licensed upstairs nursery in which 13 children, four employees and two firefighters suffocated during the fire.
The convicts face five to six years in jail, but remain free as they appeal their sentences. During the latest appeal court hearing yesterday, Nike’s culpability was again brought up by the defense.
According to an official investigation into the Villaggio fire, the blaze was caused by faulty wiring of a fluorescent light in the mezzanine of Nike.
The report also found that the store’s employees failed to extinguish the fire before it spread.
In response to questions from defense attorneys yesterday, a Civil Defense lieutenant who heads up inspections said:
“Nike didn’t have a permit from the prevention department at Civil Defense.” He added that the shop was not the only store in Villaggio operating without a license.
But the disclosure still evoked frustration from the defense’s side.
“We’ve been trying to bring (Nike) in (as a defendant) from the very start,” the defense lawyer representing Gympanzee’s co-owners said in an exchange with the prosecutor.
“If Nike wasn’t licensed properly, why is the court only going after Gympanzee for not being properly licensed?” Villaggio’s lawyer later asked.
Nursery or play area?
Also during yesterday’s six-hour hearing, debate continued over the legal status of Gympanzee. At issue during both the criminal trial and the appeal is whether Gympanzee was actually a play area for kids, as its license stated, or a nursery. The lower court ruled it was the latter and that Gympanzee was operating illegally.
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.
During the previous appeal hearing in February, the court examined photos of Gympanzee and observed posters of the alphabet on the daycare’s wall, as well as a blackboard.
That materials prompted the judge to note that Gympanzee contained items 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 and temporary babysitting service.
However, the Civil Defense witness said during yesterday’s court session that a more objective criteria exists that determines the nature of the business. He said any business that takes care of children aged three years old or under is automatically considered a nursery.
The youngest of the Villaggio Mall fire victims was 18 months old.
In another rehash of past trials, the court also covered mall safety yesterday.
Each individual store inside a mall requires its own license to operate, but Villaggio Mall itself must also have a permit.
The Civil Defense witness said the shopping center received its license even though concerns about the flammable and toxic characteristics of its paint and decorations were documented by inspectors prior to its 2006 opening, as well as in a review two years later.
When asked why Civil Defense didn’t order the decorations be removed, the lieutenant said he filed his observations and recommendations in reports to his superiors.
Verdict far off
Following a relatively speedy one-year criminal trial, the appeal sessions started in November 2013.
However, as hearings became bogged down by witnesses and defendants failing to show up and perceived stalling tactics on the part of lawyers, family members of the victims continue to express frustration with the slow-moving pace of the judicial proceedings.
Raghda Kabbani, who lost her three-year-old daughter Hana in the fire, walked out of the courtroom yesterday after hearing approximately 20 minutes of testimony.
“As soon as I entered the courtroom and started to listen to the insinuation made by the defense lawyer, and how one question was asked in a number of different ways, I started feeling my heart pounding and my arms throbbing with pain. It started getting difficult for me to breathe, and I decided to walk out and leave court knowing that the mockery of justice will continue at the hands of lawyers,” she told Doha News.
Others, however, said they thought the judges were doing a better job at keeping the lawyers on-topic.
“It’s clear from yesterday’s hearing that the panel of judges have a better command of the case and I’m hoping that from now on things will move at a faster pace,” said Abdelmasseih Antonios, who lost his two-year-old daughter Evana.
“I could also see the presiding judge acting in a firmer way towards the defense lawyers when they were clearly stalling the hearing,”
However, there were signs during yesterday’s session that a verdict is still many months away.
In a rare but not unprecedented move, one of the judges said the court plans to call its own expert witnesses before issuing a verdict.
Meanwhile, the lawyer for Gympanzee has previously indicated he plans to call roughly a half-dozen witnesses of his own.
The appeal trial is scheduled to resume on May 10 with the testimony of more witnesses called by the lawyer representing Villaggio.