CAIRO: The families of Al-Salam 98 ferry victims received Sunday’s court ruling acquitting the owner and other defendants with outrage that was echoed throughout Egypt. “This is the most depressing and darkest ruling in Egypt’s history since the Denshway Trial, scriptwriter Wahid Hamed told a local paper, in reference to the 1906 death sentence six Egyptian farmers received for chasing a British soldier, who later died of sunstroke. Mamdouh Ismail, the owner of the ferry that sank in February 2006 in the Red Sea killing 1,034 people, was acquitted by the Safaga Misdemeanors Court. His son and three Al-Salam executives were also acquitted. Ismail, his son and one of the executive have since fled the country.
Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud issued a statement after the decision saying he would appeal the ruling, and called for a retrial.
Mahmoud said he wanted a retrial because of “violations in documented records, corruption in investigation, shortcomings in validating and arbitrary conclusions, Egypt’s official MENA news agency reported.
The Al-Salam 98 sank after a fire broke out in its vehicle bay while they were traveling from Saudi Arabia to Egypt. Most of the victims were Egyptian workers returning home.
Only Salaheddin Gomaa, captain of another ferry, the Saint Catherine, was sentenced to six months in jail for failing to come to the assistance of the ferry. The court found that Gomaa had failed to show “compassion and “did not do his duty by failing to go to the rescue of victims. He was also fined LE 10,000.
Local and pan-Arab TV stations showed footage of victims’ relatives crying and beating their chests in grief after hearing the ruling.
“My brother, my brother, one woman screamed after the verdict, according to footage aired 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.
In Cairo, people interviewed by Daily News Egypt echoed the same sentiments, expressing their frustration with the ruling.
“He is another rich businessman who can do whatever he wants and flee out of it easily; this is how the system in Egypt works, said a supermarket salesman commenting on Ismail’s acquital.
“I didn’t expect this to happen. [Ismail] had done a lot of damage with his recklessness and irresponsibility, 1000 people died and they have no rights, said a waiter in a Cairo café. “There should be some kind of punishment to let everyone know that squandering the lives of those who died is absolutely unacceptable, said Islam Mohamed, a restaurant manager. A female employee at the ministry of agriculture said with a depressed and disheartened voice that “people’s lives have no importance or value to them. “The people on the furry didn’t even have life jackets like we saw in the movie Titanic, said Ibrahim, a taxi driver. He added that it’s unbelievable that the court let Ismail go in such a “huge negligence case . He didn’t get what he deserves. Ibrahim added that it was obvious from the beginning that the victim’s rights were a lost case after Ismail left the country claiming he needed medical treatment that could only be provided abroad. Following the suffering and the agony the victims’ families went through, such ruling is inappropriate, continued Ibrahim. They were waiting for justice but they simply didn’t get it, he said. “All [Ismail] cared about was to pack the ferry with many people and he never worried about their safety, everyone who worked on that ship is responsible for its sinking and also for the 1,000 lost lives, added Ibrahim. In 2007, a parliamentary investigation committee found the Ministry of Transport, the Marine Safety institution, the Egyptian rescue unit and the owner and operator of Al-Salam ferries company, Mamdouh Ismail, all guilty. “Testimony provided by passengers . confirmed that [the ferry] regularly carried more than 2,000 people, in spite of regulations limiting passenger numbers to 1,200, Hamdi El-Tahhan, chairman of the parliamentary fact-finding committee on the disaster, had said at the time.
The report went on to note that the ferry had been inadequately maintained and lacked basic emergency equipment. The report further noted that the validity of the life jackets on board the vessel had expired five years earlier. The report suggested that Ismail’s position on the board of the Red Sea Ports Authority allowed him to both sidestep safety regulations and unfairly monopolize the Red Sea shipping business.
Ismail had handed out compensations of LE 300,000 to the families of the dead or missing, and another LE 50,000 to the survivors of the tragic event to deter them from filing a lawsuit against him.
On the other hand, 20-years-old student Rania Ghalwash said, “I don’t believe he should be convicted for murder because it wasn’t intentional, but he should be convicted for the terrible safety measures on the ferry. – Additional reporting by AFP