Fists fly at Egyptian ferry disaster appeal

Two years after boat operators were found not guilty of killing 1,034 people, prosecution orders case reopened as an 'intentional killing'.

A Mamdouh Ismail is removed from the court after a scuffle with victims' relatives.
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Hurghada, EGYPT // Scuffles broke out in an Egyptian courtroom yesterday after a lawyer tried to keep relatives of some of the 1,034 victims of a ferry disaster from hearing an appeal they had brought against a non-guilty verdict. Mohammed Hamouda, a lawyer for the owners of the Al Salam 98 ferry, asked the judge on the first day of the appeal not to allow the families to attend the trial. It provoked a violent reaction from relatives, many of whom had been waiting outside the court since early morning, fasting and mourning their loved ones who drowned more than two years ago. Punches were thrown and obscenities hurled at the lawyers for a few minutes until security guards intervened. The three-judge panel, led by Ahmed Mosaad, left the court room in protest at the chaos. None of the five defendants, including Mamdouh Ismail, the owner of the ferry, and Amr, his son, were in the crowded and dusty courtroom yesterday. Ismail, the father, fled to Britain shortly after the ferry sank on Feb 3 2006 in the Red Sea on its way to Safaga on Egypt's west coast from Saudi Arabia. The defendants were cleared of any responsibility on July 27 that year. It was a verdict that shocked the victims' families and many in the country. Gamal el Ghitany, the editor of the literary weekly Akhbar el-Adab, said it was a black day for Egypt, comparable to the 1967 war with Israel. Other intellectuals have described it as a mass killing for which someone should be found guilty. The victim's families had been joined outside the Safaga courthouse by members of the opposition group, Kefaya, or Enough. On the opposite side of the street were supporters of Ismail, who carried banners cheering the innocent verdict. Police in anti-riot gear stood outside the courthouse with tear gas at the ready. "Unlike other tragedies, my catastrophe is increasing with time," said Mohammed Abdel Halim Eid, who lost his wife, three daughters and a son when the ferry sank. "The feeling of loneliness is growing, I moved to live with my parents," he said, tears welling up in his eyes as he sat on the court steps carrying a portrait of his drowned family. Mr Eid, 55, has left his job as a doctor and his only concern now, he said, is "fighting corruption which killed my family". He has refused to accept any compensation. "I'm not very optimistic about the appeal," he said. Ismail was a member of the upper house of parliament and was stripped of his immunity after he left the country. Tareq Sharaf el Din, 47, also lost his wife, two sons and two daughters aged between 19 and six. He is now living with his son Ahmed, 19, who stayed with him in Saudi Arabia when the rest of his family took the ferry back home. "The innocent verdict was horrendous, how can 1,034 people die and no criminal [be held responsible]? So was it just mass suicide?," said Mr Sharaf el Din. "Mamdouh Ismail is acting like he's above law, no one among Egyptian people believe he is innocent." Maha aboul Magd, who lost her mother and her brother and his family in the ferry accident, said there was little faith in the government. Lawyers, relatives and many in Egypt have criticised the former general prosecutor for referring the case to Safaga's misdemeanours court instead of a criminal court, blaming him for making it easier for the court to acquit Ismail and other executives. Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, the general prosecutor, appealed the verdict and ordered a new trial. "Until now, the appeal seems an attempt to defuse public anger," said Yasser Fathi Mahmoud, chief lawyer for the victims' families, before yesterday's court session. A parliamentary investigation in April 2006 said the ferry failed to meet minimum safety standards and that the agency responsible for maritime safety allowed it to sail despite being aware of its state. The ferry apparently did not have enough lifeboats or firefighting equipment. The lawyers and relatives have also complained that the trial is taking place in Hurghada, more than 550km to the southeast of Cairo, which has made it difficult and expensive for them to attend the court sessions. Before yesterday's scuffle, the prosecution had asked that the investigations be reopened and that the case be referred to as "intentional killing crime, as laxity was intentional". The prosecution also demanded an investigation into the claims of some of the families that their relatives had survived the sinking but then disappeared to prevent them from testifying. Shabaan Saeed Mohammed and the parents of Ali Mohammed Ibrahim tearfully recounted how their sons called them a few days after the accident to say they were alive but in hospital, and how they never heard from them again. "We are dying every day by not knowing where are our sons, are they still alive or dead," said Mr Mohammed. "Sometimes I feel that those who know their loved ones are dead are in a better situation than us." The prosecution concluded by demanding the highest penalty in the law against the defendants. "The prosecution made a great speech and stance," said Asaad Hayka, one of the victims' lawyers. "It's a political case, and we're handling it as such ? we will continue the fight." The judge adjourned the case until Oct 8.