Justice lost at sea?
The owner of the sunken ferry that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people was only charged with a misdemeanour. Magda El-Ghitany
wonders if he will even make it to court
The announcement that Egypt had asked InterPol to pick up Mamdouh Ismail certainly sounded impressive. A Shura Council member and the owner of the Al-Salam 98 ferry that sunk in February, killing over 1,000 people, Ismail had somehow made his way to London a few days after the tragedy took place. Far less impressive, however, was the fact that the prosecutor-general had only decided to refer Ismail to a misdemeanour court, which means he is likely to face manslaughter, rather than murder, charges for his role in the ferry passengers' untimely deaths.
Al-Salam 98 went down while sailing from the Saudi port of Daba to the Egyptian port of Safaga. Most of the 1,318 passengers on board, as well as the captain and crew, perished. Two reports released by parliament's fact-finding commission and the prosecutor- general in April and May, respectively, stressed Ismail's gross negligence. The reports said Ismail was responsible for operating the ferry without the necessary maritime safety precautions and equipment. The ferry's life jackets, for instance, had expired five years earlier, and its fire extinguishers were inoperable. The reports also accused Ismail and his son Amr, the company's deputy director, of overloading the ferry with too many passengers.
These reports also indicated that although both Ismail and his son were told that the ferry was sinking, they did not report the dangerous situation to the Safaga Port Authority. They also instructed the captain of another one of their ferries -- the Saint Catherine, which was travelling nearby -- not to stop and rescue the Al-Salam 98 victims. These facts, according to both reports, indicate that Ismail should be charged with a crime, rather than a misdemeanour.
Enter a third report, prepared by the government, which did not point the finger directly at Ismail, but rather portrayed the disaster as "an act of fate". Seemingly guided by this interpretation of events, Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel-Wahed said that Ismail, his son and four others will face charges of "negligence, and failure to rescue the victims" in front of a misdemeanour court on 5 June.
The sunken ferry's captain and crew -- some of whom perished while others have not been located -- are also being charged with "acting negligently when the fire broke out, and not taking the appropriate measures to extinguish it."
The prosecutor-general's decision, said international law professor Ali El-Ghatit, to base his charges on the "third report, while simply ignoring the other two, is hard to explain. It raises more questions than answers, and underestimates the value of the lives lost in the tragedy." El-Ghatit told Al-Ahram Weekly that it also indicated that Ismail might eventually be acquitted on all charges.
Even the head of the parliamentary fact- finding team, Hamdi El-Tahan, appears to have toned down his previously harsh stance. "No one here is in a position to oppose or support the prosecutor-general's decision," El-Tahan told the Weekly. "Several people, not only Ismail, are responsible for the tragedy." These include those responsible for checking the ferry's safety, the captain and crew for failing to manage the crisis, and finally the government for mishandling the aftermath of the disaster. In fact, El-Tahan no longer sees Ismail as the major culprit for the inadequate safety precautions on board Al-Salam 98 -- a radically different view from the one previously stated in his commission's report.
Nabil Abdel-Fattah, the deputy director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, described the misdemeanour charge as "outrageous", especially when compared to the fact that journalists whose only crime is expressing their views are frequently referred to criminal court. (Ironically enough, three journalists were referred to a criminal court on the same day Ismail was formally charged with a misdemeanour). Abdel-Fattah wondered who was benefiting from the decision to "ignore the two [harsher] reports".
The Al-Ahram analyst also thinks the recent debate over whether or not Ismail is a dual national (it was reported earlier this week that he might have British citizenship), is part of a pre-planned scenario that first facilitated Ismail's escape to the UK. For Abdel-Fattah, the speculation over Ismail being a UK national was merely a way to prep the angry families of the victims, as well as the general Egyptian public, that he may never be brought to justice in Egypt. It is simply another "example of the bitter corruption that always turns Egyptians into helpless victims".
For more than one reason, the dual nationality debate would also appear to be moot. According to Abdel-Fattah, the authorities surely already know whether or not Ismail -- as a member of the Shura Council -- holds another citizenship because there is a database on dual nationals in the People's Assembly and Shura Council that was formulated after the issue was extensively debated in the mid-1990s. "Egyptian businessmen," he said, usually "make sure to acquire another nationality, so they can easily flee in case they encounter some sort of [financial] crisis in Egypt."
For El-Ghatit, the international law professor, Ismail's status as a British national -- if true -- should not affect his legal position, or responsibility for the tragedy.