x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Woman denies lighting tent fire

The accused in the wedding tent tragedy that killed 55 retracts her statement as her lawyers blame poor safety standards.

A woman facing charges, including premeditated murder, denied yesterday in a Kuwaiti court lighting a fire at a wedding tent that led to the deaths of 55 women and children. Nasra al Enezi, 23, simply told the court "No" when asked whether she had committed the crime, contradicting a confession she had initially made not long after the incident on August 15. Her lawyers claim that the confession was made under duress during questioning by police.

Ms al Enezi was weak and relied on two female guards for balance as she was brought before the judge, Adel al Sager. She was allowed to rest after initially failing to respond to several questions about whether she had started the fire and whether she had intended to kill those present. When the black veil that covered Ms al Enezi's face was removed as she stood beside the bench, she looked overwhelmed. Instead of sitting in the caged dock with male prisoners involved in other cases, she stayed at the back of the courtroom, behind wooden panels, accompanied by female guards.

One of Ms al Enezi's lawyers, Khalid al Awadhi, asked for time to review the prosecution's case before the defendant was released on bail and the full trial began. He also urged the court to investigate an incident that happened in detention. He said Ms al Enezi's two-month-old foetus was aborted in prison without her consent after her arrest. The judge refused to release the woman and set the next date of the trial on November 17.

The public prosecutor did not speak at the hearing and declined an interview, but the defence team said Ms al Enezi had been charged with premeditated murder and starting a fire with an intention to kill. Ms al Enezi had initially confessed to lighting the fire that engulfed the tent in Jahra, a tribal suburb of Kuwait City, where the celebration continued on the night of August 15, the occasion of her husband's second marriage. She said she wanted to "burn the heart" of her husband for taking a second wife. Ms al Enezi's lawyers say she is still married to her husband, with whom she has two children.

Mr al Awadhi took the case to defend Ms al Enezi about six weeks ago. In comments suggesting that the defence was going to work on the basis that Ms al Enezi had started the fire, Mr al Awadhi had said in an interview this week - before Ms al Enezi's denial in court yesterday - that his client should not be charged with murder because she had not intended to kill the partygoers, but "only intended to make them afraid and ruin the party".

He had said the tent's poor safety standards contributed to the death toll, as did the interference of local men, who prevented firefighters from entering the tent and partygoers from leaving because the women were inappropriately dressed. He had said they did so because "everything's haram" in that conservative part of the city. Mr al Awadhi had said the only exit from the tent was a small tunnel connected to the door of the house, while the chairs were chained together and could not be moved. The tent was full of oxygen because of the air conditioners and the tent's wax coating prevented water from penetrating.

Brig Ameen Abdeen of the fire department said locals did not hold up the rescue effort and the fire was put out within minutes of the first rescue team's arrival. He said: "The firemen were prevented [from entering the tent] by neighbours and husbands of the ladies there, in case they were half naked, but this was after the fire was put out, and they only prevented them for a few minutes. "The women were wearing wedding dresses that burnt quickly and some of the bodies were nearly naked," Brig Abdeen said. "When the firemen tried to pull some of the bodies from the tent, that's when people stopped them."

Mr al Awadhi said he would argue that the woman's confession was extracted under extreme pressure, in the absence of an attorney, and should therefore not be used as evidence. He said: "They investigated her for two or three days consecutively, from the beginning of the day to the end, so there was no break. She was under pressure and said what they wanted her to say." Another defence lawyer, Zaid al Khabbaz, said the defendant was illiterate and her interrogators made her copy out a confession and sign it even though she did not fully understand its meaning.

jcalderwood@thenational.ae