CAIRO: Scuffles erupted at a Safaga court in the Red Sea on Sunday when five of six defendants were cleared of responsibility for a ferry sinking that killed more than 1,000 people died.
The Salam Boccaccio 98 ferry, which was 36 years old, sank in February 2006 and was immediately dubbed Egypt’s worst maritime disaster.
The main defendant Mamdouh Ismail (who has since fled the country), owner of Al-Salam, as well as four others were acquitted while the Captain of Saint Catherine was found guilty and fined LE 10,000 for not offering to help the sinking ferry.
“The verdict is biased in every possible way because they ignored all evidence proving negligence, said Mohamed Hashem, lawyer representing the families of some of the victims, told Daily News Egypt.
“The reasons given in court in support of Mamdouh Ismail’s innocence were insufficient, he added.
“We are going to get the complete file of the trail to study it before we file an appeal, Hashem said, adding that they are definitely going to appeal this verdict because there is no way they will let the defendants off the hook.
Human rights activists who were following the long-running trial were infuriated by the outcome.
“The truth is that as usual, we are neither surprised nor shocked by the verdict, said Gamal Eid, human rights lawyer and head of Arab Network for Human Rights Information.
“Throughout the trail it was obvious that the government was backing him [Ismail] and will not allow his conviction. Without the independence of the judicial system this verdict was expected, he added.
While some organizations didn’t question the objectivity and credibility of the court’s ruling, they were still enraged at such a lenient verdict for an accident of this magnitude.
“We respect the sanctity of the judicial system but this is not the verdict we were expecting in this case. We definitely expected a harsher verdict and more people to be found guilty in this matter of negligence which has resulted in the death of more than 1,000 people, said Tarek Zaghloul, from the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. “We cannot question a court’s verdict, but we were expecting a harsher punishment because what happened was the worst maritime disaster in Egypt and it was a result of negligence and corruption, said Abdel Fattah Hamed, president of the Middle East Organization for Human Rights and Peace.
“I’m afraid that this lenient ruling can open the doors for other ferry-owners and managers to neglect maintenance work that could jeopardize people’s lives, added Hamed.
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. -Additional reporting by AFP