CAIRO // Scuffles erupted at an Egyptian court today when five of six defendants were cleared of blame for a 2006 ferry sinking in which more than 1,000 people died, Egypt's worst maritime disaster. Hysterical relatives voiced anger as only Salaheddin Gomaa, captain of another ferry, the Saint Catherine, was jailed for six months for failing to come to the assistance of the Al Salam Boccaccio 98, a judicial source said.
The public prosecutor, Abdel Meguid Mahmud, issued a statement after the court decision saying he would appeal the ruling and called for a retrial. The Al Salam sank in the middle of the Red Sea on February 3, 2006 as it was carrying more than 1,400 people from Saudi Arabia to the Egyptian port of Safaga, where the trial was held. "My brother, my brother," one woman screamed after the verdict, according to footage shown on Al Jazeera television which also showed security men scuffling with relatives and another woman being manhandled.
Dozens of relatives, many carrying photographs of their dead loved ones, were crammed into the court building, although the heavy security presence prevented them from entering the courtroom itself. Others wailed in grief on the steps outside. "God help us, 1,034 people are dead!" shouted one man. Most of the victims were from poor families in southern Egypt, and the court scenes were reminiscent of the emotional outpourings in the days following the sinking as anxious relatives waited in vain for bodies to be recovered.
"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," one man told Al Jazeera. "This is awful. My wife and children died and after two years everyone responsible is found to be innocent," he said, slamming some of the defendants for leaving the country pending the court's ruling. The court found that Mr Gomaa had failed to show "compassion" and "did not do his duty by failing to go to the rescue of victims".
The Saint Catherine captain was also fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,880) at the end of the long-running trial. The main defendant, Mamduh Ismail, who owned the 36-year-old Al Salam and is a member of parliament's upper house which is appointed by the president, Hosni Mubarak, was acquitted. In June 2006, Mr Ismail was ordered to pay 330 million Egyptian pounds (US$57 million) into a fund to compensate victims of the disaster and in return, a freeze on his assets was lifted.
Also accused were Mr Ismail's son and three Al Salam executives. Mr Ismail, his son and one of the executives are not currently in Egypt. In 2006, a parliamentary commission of inquiry blamed Al Salam for the disaster, saying the firm had continued to operate the ferry "despite serious defects" in the vessel. It also said the government "failed to manage the crisis adequately" in the days after the sinking.
Ismail had denied responsibility for the disaster, and blamed the captain of the Al Salam 98, who went down with his ship, for overestimating the crew's ability to fight a fire that had broken out on board. The passengers on the ferry were mostly Egyptian migrant workers, some of whom were bringing months', if not years', worth of savings to their families back home. *AFP