x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Five sentenced over Doha mall fire which killed 19 including 13 children

Owners of a nursery, members of the Villaggio mall management and a government official convicted of involuntary manslaughter over blaze that killed 19 including 13 children. Elizabeth Dickinson reports from Doha

Smoke rises from the fire at Villagio Mall in the Qatari capital. Children at the mall’s Gympanzee nursery were trapped in the blaze.
Smoke rises from the fire at Villagio Mall in the Qatari capital. Children at the mall’s Gympanzee nursery were trapped in the blaze.

DOHA // A court in Qatar yesterday sentenced five people to jail over a shopping mall fire that killed 19 including 13 children trapped inside a nursery.

The owners of the nursery, members of the Villaggio mall management and a government official were convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

The fire in May last year shocked Qatar, and the families of the victims, mostly expatriates, have been fighting ever since for answers as to why so many were killed in a blaze inside such a modern shopping mall.

Some of those families attending the sentencing at the Public Prosecution in Doha yesterday confirmed the jail sentences.

"Of course we are happy with the verdict, but it can never compensate for the loss of our daughter," said Manal Murgus, the Sudanese mother of Evana Sekander, who was just 18 months old when she died in the fire.

Four of the defendants were sentenced to six years in prison — the maximum sentence. Among them was Sheikh Ali bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar's Ambassador to Belgium and co-owner of the Gympanzee nursery at the centre of the fire, and Iman Al Kuwari, daughter of Qatar's culture minister and another co-owner and manager of Gympanzee.

The mall's chairman and manager were also sentenced to six years, while an official from the ministry of business and trade was sentenced to five years. The head and deputy of security at the mall were cleared of the charge.

In addition to the jail sentences, the judge ruled that 200,000 Qatari Riyals (Dh202,000), the statutory blood money, should be paid to the families of each victim, a family member confirmed.

The five convicted will now have two weeks under Qatari law to appeal their verdicts, local media reported. The defendants would remain out of custody until that process was complete. Appeals would be expected to take up to a year.

Across Qatar, the verdict has been met with a mixture of surprise and relief. The Villaggio fire shocked residents of all walks of life. "Wow," and "finally" were the reactions of Doha-based Twitter users reacting immediately after the verdict.

"The law has taken its course," another tweeted.

Analysts said the verdict in the trial, which began last September, could herald a breakthrough in the judiciary's ability to prosecute high-profile defendants.

"If these sentences are enforced, this would send a significant message about the way the legal system is seen to handle Qatari nationals in such a high-profile case," said Jeremy Hunt, Qatar country manager at Regester Larkin Middle East, an international consulting firm.

The portion of the mall that was most affected by the fire reopened just this week, on Wednesday. And although crowds flanked the stores in much of the complex, the area affected — where stores damaged in the fire have now reopened — was more eerily quiet. One shop owner said business was still tough.

The fire broke out on May 28 last year at around 11am at a Nike shop opposite the Gympanzee nursery, according to reporting by the online site Doha News. The mall, opened in 2006 and mimicking the gondola-laden canals of Venice, quickly filled with smoke.

Evacuation procedures were chaotic and a government investigation last year found that firefighters took two hours to reach the 13 children trapped in a nursery inside.

Martin and Jane Weekes, a the New Zealand couple, lost their triplets - Lillie, Jackson and Willsher. The other dead children came from China, Canada, France, South Africa, Spain, Egypt and the United States.

Despite the desperate situation inside, initial government reports suggested no one had been killed. After the death toll became clear, many in Qatar were stunned. Despite all the victims being expatriates memorial ceremonies after the accident drew scores of Qataris.

The government established a committee in June to examine the tragedy and its report found a "lack of adherence to laws, systems and measures by all concerned parties to different degrees," according to a summary published on the Qatar state news agency. "This includes adherence to design, licence and safety conditions, which contributed to the Villaggio catastrophe".

Qatar's crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited some victims' families after the tragedy and promised justice.

But families of the victims have continued to argue that there had not been a strong enough response to the tragedy. Reacting in a group statement, the families said they would mark the verdict by remembering their loved ones and called on Qatar to do more.

"The trial only gave us some answers. We still have more questions," the victims' statement said. "To get these much needed answers, we call upon the State of Qatar to release the official report into the disaster."

Mr Al Thani, the Qatari ambassador to Belgium sentenced to six years, was not available for comment when his office in Brussels was reached by phone yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Villaggio mall is apparently trying to move beyond the incident by reopening doors of the damaged corridor on Wednesday, which families called "continual insensitive behaviour" in their statement. There is no memorial along the hallways, which are painted like Italian row houses in bright pink and yellow.

"It's good to reopen it," one Qatari shopper at the mall, who declined to be named, said yesterday. "I think people will forget what happened, though somehow the mall will always be different."

Ms Murgus, who still lives in Doha, said she would remain in Qatar to follow the appeal process, despite the relief that the initial verdict provided.

"We were so much worried going into today …[the defendants] are such connected people with good names," Ms Murgus said. "All along we have been saying that this whole process was taking so long, but today the result was good."

edickinson@thenational.ae

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