Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 April 2006
Issue No. 790
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ferry owner's assets frozen

The Shura Council has agreed that the assets of Mamdouh Ismail, owner of the ferry Al-Salam 98, should be sequestered pending the outcome of the investigation into the ship's sinking, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

On Tuesday the Shura Council agreed that Mamdouh Ismail, owner of the ferry Al-Salam 98, which sank in the Red Sea on 3 February, be stripped of parliamentary immunity. The request was submitted by Socialist Prosecutor-General (SPC) Gaber Rihan, who stated he was acting upon instructions received from the People's Assembly. Two weeks earlier, on 19 March, the Shura Council had approved a similar request submitted by the justice minister and prosecutor- general.

While the first request allows Ismail to be questioned over the sinking of the ferry, the SPC's submission is aimed at freezing the assets of Ismail and his family.

"The speaker of the People's Assembly, Fathi Sorour, informed me on 22 March that the assembly had approved a request by more than 100 MPs asking that measures aimed at sequestrating the wealth of Ismail and his family should proceed as speedily as possible," said Rihan.

The socialist prosecution-general -- subject to the purview of the People's Assembly -- is the only authority empowered to instigate sequestration procedures.

Rihan explained that in their request MPs had expressed concern that following Ismail's departure from the country it had become a matter of urgency to freeze the assets of the businessman lest he attempt to transfer funds outside Egypt or liquidate his holdings inside the country.

"Ismail's assets should be placed under sequestration until the investigation into the disaster is complete," Rihan cited MPs as saying. MPs also praised the prosecutor-general's decision not to allow Ismail's wife to travel to London two weeks ago.

In response to mounting criticism on Saturday Ismail took a paid advertisement in Al-Ahram in which he claimed the investigation of the ferry's British insurers into the sinking had concluded that the ship was fitted with all necessary safety equipment. The advertisement said the insurers had agreed to distribute insurance money to the ferry's owners which will allow all compensation claims to be settled. Meanwhile, it said Ismail would remain in London to pursue the interests of victims of the disaster.

Ismail's advertisement also cited the cabinet spokesman as saying on 4 April that the captain of the ferry was mostly to blame for the disaster.

In a letter to Shura Council Speaker Safwat El-Sherif, Ismail repeated his claim that he had traveled to London to coordinate with his insurers over compensating victims of the sinking.

"As of this week the families of 40 victims, and another 170 who survived the disaster, have received LE8.5 million in compensation," said Ismail. "At the moment I am in the process of securing an additional LE158 million to cover the outstanding compensation."

Ismail went on to urge the Shura Council to reject the SPC's request, arguing "sequestration will negatively affect tourism in Egypt... My assets, which could face sequestration, include landmark hotels in Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh."

Reports on the sinking prepared by both the Shura Council and the People's Assembly contradict Ismail's version of events. The two reports state that negligence, a lack of equipment and the tardy response from officials all played a part in the tragedy.

"Negligence and the absence of an appropriate response are not only to blame for the high death toll of the ferry disaster, but also for other recent disasters, including plane and train accidents," said the Shura report.

At Safaga, the report continued, authorities failed to offer support to the families of victims. "As for the Crisis Management Agency (CMA), created by the Council of Ministers to deal with crises and natural disasters, it is itself in a state of crisis."

The report also directed an implicit rebuke to Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, pointing out that "cabinet ministers declined to visit Safaga to find out what was happening on the ground or the kind of help the families of victims needed".

While the Shura Council report refrained from pointing a finger at those who might be directly responsible for the disaster, the People's Assembly report was less restrained.

The assembly report, prepared by a fact- finding committee, laid the blame on both the captain and the ferry's owners. The report said the captain had failed to follow the necessary safety measures or respond adequately when a fire broke out on the ferry. For its part, the company had failed to provide the ferry with safety facilities, including fire-extinguishing equipment. "There are many questions over whether the Panamanian safety certificates obtained by the ferry confirm that the boat actually conformed to the maritime transport safety agreements to which Egypt is a signatory," the report said. It also criticised Saudi authorities for failing inspect the ferry before it left the Saudi port of Dabba.

Al-Salam 98 was carrying 1,417 passengers when it sank. Only 387 survived the disaster.

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