Five of six accused over Egyptian ferry fire that killed over 1,000 are acquitted

Monday, July 28, 2008

Five of the six defendants accused of manslaughter over the 2006 fire on board Egyptian ferry al-Salam Boccaccio 98 have been cleared of all charges. The February 3 fire and subsequent sinking killed 1,034 of around 1,400 passengers.

Mamdouh Ismail, owner of the al-Salam company, his son and three company executives were all cleared of manslaughter. Ismail is a member of parliament directly appointed by the president, and both he, his son and another of the executives were tried in absentia as they have left the country. They had all been charged with manslaughter stemming from safety violations on the ship.

Convicted was Salaheddin Gomaa, captain of nearby ferry Saint Catherine. He was jailed for six months after the court found he did not come to the stricken al-Salam 98's aid. It found he "did not do his duty by failing to go to the rescue of victims," and that he failed to show any compassion.

The last reported point where the al Salam Boccaccio 98 was observed by coastal radar.
Image: Rune.welsh.

The ship went down in the Red Sea near Egyptian port Safaga, where the trial was held, having departed earlier from Saudi Arabia's Dhaba port. A parliamentary report balmed the disaster's scale on the owners, as well as the government and Panama, the state where the ship was registered. The report said al-Salam had kept operating the ship "despite serious defects" with her, and that the government had "failed to manage the crisis adequately" in the following days.

It was found that the 36-year-old al-Salam 98's safety documents were forged, that the ship's extuinguishers and life rafts were not fit for purpose and that there were an inadequate number of winches to lower the rafts into the sea. However, the elder Ismail had put the blame on his ferry's captain, who he claimed wrongly believed the crew could deal with the fire when it broke out. The captain was amongst the dead.

Ismail's assets were frozen and a travel ban was imposed on him following the disaster, but both were lifted later that year after he paid 300,000,000 (US$57,000,000) into a victim's compensation fund. Many victims were poor Egyptian migrant workers, and some were bringing home savings accumulated over months or years.

The Misdemeanor Court's acquittal of all except Gomaa — who was fined E£10,000 (US$1,887) — met with anger from relatives, who turned out en masse to hear the verdicts. One man told al-Jazeera "The day of the accident everybody saw that the ship was in bad shape and two years later they say the boat was in good shape. It doesn't make sense. This is awful. My wife and children died and after two years everyone responsible is found to be innocent."

Public prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmud was also unhappy with the result. In a statement he said he intends to appeal the verdict and demand a retrial. He alleges serious "violations in documented records, corruption in investigation, shortcomings in validatings and arbitrary conclusions," and cites these as his reasons for a retrial.