Victims' families shocked as Qatar envoy cleared over deadly mall blaze
Qatar’s Appeals Court on Monday overturned the 2013 convictions of all five people sentenced in a lower court over a shopping centre fire that killed 19 in the capital Doha.
However, the company that owns the Villaggio Mall in which the victims from 11 countries including the US, France, Spain and China died in May 2012, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, which paved the way for lawsuits filed in the US and Qatar to go ahead.
Victims’ families told Middle East Eye they were consulting their lawyers in regards to the next step, but they reacted with shock at the court’s decision to exonerate all of those convicted, including Qatar’s top European diplomat Sheikh Ali bin Jassim al-Thani, a member of the Gulf State’s ruling family.
He continued to serve as Qatar’s head of mission to the EU and ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg after him and his wife, Imam al-Kuwari, were sentenced to six years in prison for involuntary manslaughter in 2013 as the owners of the mall’s Gympanzee childcare centre, in which 13 children died in the fire.
This upset victims’ relatives including New Zealand couple Martin and Jane Weekes, whose two-year-old triplets died in Gympanzee.
Martin Weekes called Monday’s ruling a travesty.
“Jane and I are utterly disappointed in the complete U-turn by the Qatar courts,” he told Middle East Eye. “This decision disrespects and trivialises the deaths of Lillie, Jackson and Willsher and their 10 friends.
“We are seeking further legal advice as to what we do next, but regardless we will not give up holding Qatar accountable and hope the international community does the same.”
All defendants absent
Sheikh al-Thani also upset victims’ relatives by remaining in Brussels for much of the appeals hearings process. The families were further devastated by the absence of all defendants in the Appeals Court on Monday, in which some relatives stormed out while Judge Abdalrahman al-Sharafi read out the five-hour-long verdict, according to local media.
During Monday's session, the appeals judge ruled that he was throwing out all testimony given by victims’ relatives during the lower court trial that led to a guilty verdict because he said one cannot be a witness and a plaintiff in the same case, Doha News reported.
While Villaggio chairman Abdul Aziz Mohammed al-Rabban was cleared of involuntary manslaughter, the court ruled his firm, the Qatari Company for Real Estate and Commercial Projects (Villaggio), was guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
That means his firm and its insurance company will have to pay compensation to the victims’ families and a fine of $5,500, according to the Doha News.
During appeals hearings, defence lawyers 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.
Thani’s defence lawyers accused prosecutors of rushing the investigation, making those charged scapegoats amid growing media pressure over the fire.
The judge agreed with Gympanzee’s owners that the childcare centre was not a nursery, which would require the owners to be more accountable under Qatari law. Instead, he ruled it was an entertainment centre based on the assessment of the municipal employee who chose to license it and the fact that children up to the age of 12 could attend.
Basic questions about fire investigation
South African grandmother Maryam Charles, whose daughter Shameega Charles, 29, perished in Gympanzee as she tried to save the two youngest children, said she was completely taken aback by the verdict, but her focus now would be on raising her daughter’s eight-year-old son, Mahir, alone.
The victims’ families say they have not seen the mall fire report commissioned by the current Emir when he was crown prince. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani took the reins of power in 2013 after his father's abdication.
“I cannot help but wonder if in fact there was an investigation after the fire. If indeed there was one, what is written in the report that no one had been granted access to it?” Charles said.
The British mall manager, Tzoulios Tzouliou, also had his involuntary manslaughter conviction overturned on Monday, while municipal worker Mansour Nasir Fazzaa al-Shahwani, was cleared of forgery and in regards to accusations that he had failed to provide a licence to Gympanzee.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which has offered support to some of the victims’ families, criticised the Appeals Court for appearing to blame the staff who died in Sheikh al-Thani’s childcare centre over the tragedy.
“It is an absolute disgrace,” she said.
“The overturning of convictions today is a total denial of justice for the victims, including children, who lost their lives in the tragic fire in Doha's Villagio Mall and demonstrates that there is a culture of impunity for Qatari citizens.”
Gabriela Knaul, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to the UN, has highlighted delays in the mall fire case and others in a report on Qatar’s justice system, tabled to the UN in June.
In the report, Knaul also raises concerns about reports of a lack of independence of Qatar’s judiciary from the government, a lack of impartiality, bias and improper behaviour of judges and allegations that powerful companies have influenced prosecution services.
However, Knaul writes in her findings that authorities have assured the Special Rapporteur of their determination to improve the system where needed.
The Qatar government communications office, who were approached for comment on Monday, had not responded to MEE's questions by the time of publication.
Lawsuits move forward
The families, along with insurance company, will now have the right to sue Nike store operators Sun and Sand Sports, according to Doha News.
Several victims’ families have filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits in Los Angeles Superior Court and Qatar’s court of first instance.
The Qatar civil case seeks compensation and damages of $77m 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.
The civil lawsuits state the deaths were preventable and blame human errors “resulting from laziness, negligence and the desire to cut corners and save expenses”.
“The fire was a result of numerous fatal mistakes on the part of the defendants,” the US suit alleges.
It further alleges the fire control and suppression systems designed by F+A and White Young totally failed.
“The fans that were intended to remove smoke in the event of a fire instead forced smoke back into the mall,” the lawsuit states.
“The smoke vents did not function properly, if at all. The sprinkler system failed. The fire hoses in the mall were too short to reach the sporting goods store [Nike] or Gympanzee.”
“The fire soon raged out of control and poisonous smoke permeated the mall,” the lawsuit added.