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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Tears as TV footage of Villaggio fire played in Qatar appeal court

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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.

Abdelmasseih Antonios with his late daughter Evana.
Abdelmasseih Antonios with his late daughter Evana.

“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.

Other evidence

Day after the Villaggio fire.
Day after the Villaggio fire.

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.

Appeals court
Appeals court

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.

Court absence

Sheikh Ali bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar's ambassador to Belgium, gives a speech in Brussels in early February 2015 before European politicians and NATO representatives. Al Thani was the co-owner of Gympanzee and was not in court last week for an appeal hearing of his conviction of involuntary manslaughter.
Sheikh Ali bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar’s ambassador to Belgium, gives a speech in Brussels in early February 2015 before European politicians and NATO representatives. Al Thani was the co-owner of Gympanzee and was not in court last week for an appeal hearing of his conviction of involuntary manslaughter.

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.”

Thoughts?

18 COMMENTS

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Bling
Bling
6 years ago

its 2015 still no justice.

AEC
AEC
6 years ago

A defence lawyer talking to a parent not on the stand? Seriously?

Ben
Ben
6 years ago
Reply to  AEC

The lawyer who shouted at a sobbing parent needs a good slap

The Reporter
The Reporter
6 years ago

My heart goes out to the bereaved parents who have to endure such a shambles of a judicial process. Does Qatar feel no shame at this?

Nelson
Nelson
6 years ago

Justic Delayed is Justice Denied…..

Daniel Schriefer
Daniel Schriefer
6 years ago

The way this is handled is just one thing: disgusting!

wonderer
wonderer
6 years ago

though we need to see justice done but i ask the parents to stop tormenting themselves since people handling the case loosed nothing. children died and they will never come back. whether it was done intentionally, accidentally or sleeping on duty let it be a lesson learned to mall owners

Parwaiz Win
Parwaiz Win
6 years ago
Reply to  wonderer

Easier said then done…did you or i lose a love one ? Talk is cheap my friend.

Omar
Omar
6 years ago
Reply to  Parwaiz Win

You have to move on at some point. We understand how hard it is, but even with people passing away from natural causes or accidents; we still manage to move on at some point.

outdoorsboys
outdoorsboys
6 years ago
Reply to  Omar

I think we can All move on when justice is served. Time is not a healer here, Justice is.
The fact that those responsible for the running and ownership of the mall and the
nursery are still out there enjoying life is a constant reminder to those who
lost their loved ones that they are not valued in Qatar. Does Qatar hope that we will all just get bored and lose interest?

Michael L
Michael L
6 years ago
Reply to  outdoorsboys

It seems that way but I hope that some of the insensitive comments from some people on here are not representative

Parwaiz Win
Parwaiz Win
6 years ago
Reply to  Omar

Let me repeat what I said..easier said then done. Did you or I lose a love one in this tragedy ? If not …. who are we too ask them to move on ? Closure will come when people responsible are brought to justice; it will not bring the love ones back but at least it will also not allow those guilty to walk and travel the world as if nothing happened.

Chief Kebab
Chief Kebab
6 years ago
Reply to  Omar

Omar, only one problem though: I wouldn’t classify negligence, violating safety codes & licensing issues as “natural causes” or “accidents’. I advise you to demonstrate little more respect and empathy towards the families of the victims. And while we’re at it — parents in Qatar, it’s sickening to see kids not buckled up in your vehicles, often over your laps at the front or bouncing in the back seats. A simple accident God forbids, and you may never see them again and their blood will be on your own hands, and not fate.

MIMH
MIMH
6 years ago

It is quite amazing how the lawyers are allowed to string this out by the judge. The lawyers are making more money the longer the appeal goes on.

I hope this judge goes back to deliberating in parking tickets as it seems he is it fit to preside over something important.

KK
KK
6 years ago

What about all the promises made at the time ? Still mulling?

KHalwani
KHalwani
6 years ago

There is no justice in the Arab world. Full stop. I lost my baby cousin in that fire and this is becoming ridiculous, we demand quick action instantly!

Silent one
Silent one
6 years ago

This is not only a trial of a case. This is a trial for the country. To see whether they care to find out the truth, to see whether they care to the value of human life, to see whether they care about justice. As a building professional I am also amazed when I read the original verdict and the trial that there was no question about whether the mall is designed fit for purpose. If fundamentally there is no way for people to escape it is a question of failed design.

outdoorsboys
outdoorsboys
6 years ago

The stink of whitewash hangs heavy in the air. Three years to reach a verdict on this case?

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