The much-anticipated verdict on the case against Mamdouh Ismail, owner of the doomed Egyptian Al Salam ferry, has triggered a wave of anger and resentment across Egypt, yet no one was particularly surprised.
Despite the scathing condemnations, the raw fury, the indignation beamed through satellite TV talk shows and on the opinion pages of the opposition press, there was a general feeling that the ruling on the two-year court case was somehow “expected.
Rightly so: in a country of sinking ships with no lighthouse on the horizon, why should there be any exceptions?
On Sunday, a Safaga misdemeanors court found Mamdouh Ismail, a former appointed Shoura Council member, not guilty of manslaughter charges. He was absolved of all responsibility for the death of 1,034 Egyptians who drowned when the Al Salam 98 Boccaccio ferry, which belongs to his company’s fleet, sank in the Red Sea on February 3, 2006.
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.
While Ismail, his son and three other Al Salam Company executives were acquitted, Alaaeddin Shahin, the captain of another ferry, the Saint Catherine, was slapped with a six-month jail sentence and a LE 10,000 fine for failing to show “compassion and not offering assistance to the ship, which sank after it caught fire.
The ruling confirmed what everyone knows: that the marriage of money and power in Egypt has reached epidemic proportions, that the rich are above the law and that the independence of the judiciary is a mirage.
Within hours of the declaration of the verdict, Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud announced that he will appeal the ruling because the court had ignored much of the evidence.
Mahmoud demanded 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 findings of a parliamentary fact-finding report that implicated the ferry owners beyond the shadow of a doubt, were ignored. While the court had conceded in the 11 reasons on which it based its verdict that the prosecution lacked sufficient evidence to convict Ismail, it made no reference to the PA’s report citing corruption, negligence and Ismail’s abuse of his influence as an MP and member of the ruling National Democratic Party to sidestep safety regulations and monopolize transport in the Red Sea.
The conflict of interest in the fact that Ismail was a board member of the maritime authority that regulates ferries operating in the area allowed him to systematically violate other rules such as the number of passengers allowed to board the ferry.
As many observers noted, the conspiracy to protect Ismail from any criminal charges was clear from the outset: he was not stripped of parliamentary immunity; he remained in the country for two whole months following the disaster during which time he reached a settlement with victims’ families and survivors (only some of which accepted LE 300,000 and LE 50,000 compensation respectively) all under pressure that the entirety of his assets would be frozen; charges were leveled against him only after he left the country; the case was miraculously referred to a misdemeanors court (not a criminal court) in Safaga, in all likelihood to make the trip prohibitive for families to attend the hearings; and finally, according to reformist judge Ahmed Mekki, the manner in which then Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel Wahid handled the case rendered the verdict inevitable as the charges were focused on the accusation that Ismail had delayed informing the rescue authorities about the accident.
Hence, the comedy of errors that culminated in the judges’ reasoning included the following statement that will go down in history, shaming its author for all eternity:
“Post-mortem examinations, it said, “did not reveal the time of death or show that there was a delay in rescue operation.
What on earth is that supposed to mean? That 1,034 people about to drown on a cold, dark night had ‘deliberately refused’ rescue efforts and have therefore brought about their own deaths? That this whole court case was about ‘when’ they died, not ‘why’ and ‘how’ they died as if the sinking of the 36-year-old ferry they were boarding at the time had nothing at all to do with it?
Like Al Salam, Egypt too is sinking into a dark abyss fueled by a public loss of confidence in the integrity of the judicial system which until recently, was the last bastion of hope for true reform.
If the Sept. 3 appeal does not reverse this ruling, don’t be surprised. Think Agrium, Hidelina, shadowy gas export deals, manipulated anti-monopoly laws, military trials, jailed opposition leaders, and much, much more.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.