Qatari court to decide on mall tragedy appeals

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All five convicted after blaze deaths, including Qatar's top European diplomat, have remained free since being sentenced in 2013

In 2013, a blaze at the Gympanzee childcare centre in Doha's Villaggio Mall killed 13 children (AFP)
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Last update: 
Sunday 25 October 2015 18:20 UTC
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Qatar’s Appeals Court will rule on Monday whether to uphold convictions over a Doha shopping mall fire that killed 19 people in 2012.

All five of those convicted have remained free on appeal since being sentenced in 2013 over the tragedy, including Qatar’s top European diplomat Sheikh Ali bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of the Gulf State’s ruling family.

He has continued to serve as Qatar’s head of mission to the EU and ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg after he and his wife, Imam al-Kuwari, were sentenced to six years in prison for involuntary manslaughter in 2013 as the owners of the Villaggio Mall Gympanzee childcare centre, in which 13 children died in a fire.

This has upset some of the victims’ families, including New Zealand couple Martin and Jane Weekes, whose two-year-old triplets, Lillie, Jackson and Willshire, died in Gympanzee.

“The ultimate bit for me was trying to get Ali Bin Jassim into court because, time and time again, the trials were delayed because he wasn’t coming to court,” Martin Weekes said, in reference to the fact that the diplomat has remained in Brussels for much of the appeals process, citing diplomatic commitments and health reasons.

Sheikh Al Thani’s defence lawyers accused prosecutors of rushing the investigation, making those charged scapegoats amid media pressure. They rejected prosecution claims that Gympanzee is a nursery, which would require the owners to be more accountable under Qatari law, according to local media court reports. The EU said it will review the situation after Monday’s verdict.

'You can't heal'

Weekes said the only people suffering were the bereft families, who had to relive the tragedy every time there was a court hearing during a legal process so dogged by delays it was highlighted in a report to the UN tabled in June.

“That’s the one day of their lives that we don’t want to remember,” the British-born father of five other children told Middle East Eye.  

“You can’t heal; to constantly face that day, you have to keep a barrier up, you’ve got to protect yourself, and that stops you being able to celebrate the life that they did have and all the good things.

“As the victims’ families, we feel that we are the ones on trial.”

The Weekes are among several victims’ families that have filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits in Los Angeles Superior Court and Qatar’s court of first instance. The cases cannot proceed until a definitive ruling has been made in the criminal case. If the Appeals Court upholds the lower court decision, the appellants can appeal to the Court of Cassation.

Jane Weekes, who gave birth to twins Poppy and Parker in Auckland in 2013, welcomed Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s pledge to New Zealand Prime Minister John Key for justice, after the leaders held private talks in April.

However, she said there had been no transparency during the judicial process and they had had no help throughout the court proceedings.

“We have been denied any access to information, had our consulate denied translation services, and had numerous delays at the whim of the Qatari defence,” she said.

Gabriela Knaul, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to the UN, states in her report of a 2014 visit to Doha, that it is unacceptable to postpone a case because the defendants do not show up to court when summoned.

Compensation not forthcoming

South African grandmother Maryam Charles, whose teacher daughter Shameega Charles, 29, perished in Gympanzee as she tried to save the two youngest children who died under her shirt from smoke fumes, broke down when she read that Ms Al-Kawari could not attend court because she had to be in Belgium to take care of her children.

“How can she not think as a mother what it is doing to us as parents who lost our children?” she said of the daughter of Qatar's culture minister.

Charles said she has not received any of the court-ordered compensation, known as “blood money” in Qatar, set by the sentencing court at $55,000. Her formerly successful home bakery business has folded because she has had to devote her time to raising her late daughter’s eight-year-old son, Mahir, alone.

“All that I would like to see is justice for Mahir because that is what he deserves,” she said. “There is no amount of money that is going to bring his mother back, just for a 10-second hug, which is what he wants."

Martin Weekes said he had had to pay for a lawyer to take those convicted to court four times to obtain an enforcement order to pay the “blood money”.

“What we received in terms of blood money doesn’t even cover the funeral expenses, the repatriation, the medical bills, any of this stuff,” he said of the costs, now sought in the lawsuits.

The Qatar civil case seeks compensation and damages of $77mn and names Gympanzee as one of 12 defendants.

The California case does not specify the amount sought but calls on companies to pay for general and punitive damages, including medical and legal costs and lost earnings for the past, present and future.

It alleges wrongful death, negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress and names as one of the defendants the Pasadena-based F+A Architects, which designed the upmarket mall.

'Travesty of justice'

During appeals hearings, defence lawyers have asked why no one from US sports giant Nike had been charged, given that faulty wiring in a fluorescent light at the company's store in the mall was found to be the cause of the fire.

Martin Weekes said the fire report commissioned by the Emir when he was crown prince was the basis of safety reforms in Qatar as it prepared to become the first Middle Eastern country to host the soccer World Cup in 2022.

Yet none of the relatives of those killed, from 11 countries including the United States, France, Spain and China, has seen the independent report into the fire. The only people who had seen it were Qatar’s cabinet, he said.

International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrow confirmed that the labour rights group has offered support to some of the victims’ families and raised the issue of someone convicted of a serious crime serving as an ambassador at the highest level in Belgium and the European Union.

“The judicial system is slow, often depending on the individual and the politics surrounding the case as to whether or not it’s treated fairly,” Burrow said of Qatar. “The Villaggio fire case is a travesty of justice.”

Villaggio Mall’s chairman, Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al-Rabban, and the British mall manager, Tzoulios Tzouliou, are also appealing their involuntary manslaughter convictions, as is a municipal government employee convicted of renewing Gympanzee’s permit without visiting the premises in person.

The EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations department emailed a written statement in response to requests for comment ahead of the Appeals Court verdict.

“The EU has expressed its sincere condolences in response to the deadly fire,” the statement reads.

“We are aware of the fact that Sheikh Ali Bin Jassim Al-Thani has been sentenced at the first level of jurisdiction; it is also our understanding that appeals proceedings are ongoing and that the sentence will become definitive once the court of appeal has issued its decision.

“When this is the case, we shall reassess the situation.”

The ambassador and several Qatar government departments were offered the right of reply to this report.

After several weeks of consideration, its communication office sent an email stating: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs won't comment on this situation.”