EGYPT: A shocking acquittal
As the judge read out the verdict, some wept or shouted hysterically, while others could not stand the shock and eventually collapsed on the ground at the door of the courtroom.
This is how relatives of those who died when a ferry sank two years ago, which killed more than 1,000 people, reacted Sunday to a ruling acquitting five of six defendants.
"May God take our revenge," shouted a victim’s relative, raising his hands to the sky as he walked out of the court building in Safaga, 432 miles southeast Cairo, according to the footage broadcast by Al Jazeera.
In February 2006, the ferry Al Salam Boccaccio 98 sank in the Red Sea as it was carrying about 1,400 people, mostly from poor Egyptian families, from Saudi Arabia to the Egyptian port of Safaga. The disaster sparked a wave of national outrage. In the aftermath of the incident, a parliamentary commission was formed to investigate. The commission concluded that the ferry company should be held responsible for the calamity because it operated the vessel despite "serious defects."
Many observers have cast doubt on the integrity of the judicial process, which convicted Salah Eddin Gomaa, the captain of another ferry, for failing to provide assistance to the sinking vessel. Gomaa was sentenced to six months in jail and fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds (about $1,800).
The acquittal of the main defendant and the ferry’s owner, Mamdouh Ismail, came as a shock to many Egyptians. Yet, for those who hold the belief that the government compromises the right of the poor to protect those with financial or political power, the ruling came as no surprise.
Given the owner’s political leverage, the case has bore inflammatory political tones. Many skeptics held that the owner’s connections with some key officials in the government and his status as a presidential appointee in the parliament’s upper house would help him escape punishment. This theory was reinforced after Ismail left Egypt for Europe shortly after the incident.
"It is black acquittal: Who will pay for the lives of our children?" read the main headline on the front page of the Badil independent daily.
“Believe it or not: All defendants were acquitted except the captain of another ferry,” read a sarcastic headline on the front page of the Dustour daily.
“We lost 1,033 Egyptians in the Red Sea and we only found one convict who was only sentenced to six months,” wrote Abbas Tarabili, the editor in chief of the opposition Wafd daily. “What would have happened if the family of some senior official was on the ferry? Would the issue have been talked the way it was?”
Besides the local press, Facebook social networking site has witnessed the emergence of several groups to mourn the victims and condemn the verdict. "I am wondering how the young generations can have any sense of belonging to [Egypt] when they realize that the unemployed youths who travel to find jobs elsewhere sink and then the culprit, whose hands remain tainted with their blood, gets acquitted," read a comment on a Facebook group with the name "Farewell to Al-Salam Ferry's victims."
Many of the passengers were migrant workers.
Shortly after the verdict was handed down, the public prosecutor announced that he would file an appeal.
— Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo
Photos: Top, a woman screams after hearing the verdict, in front of a photo of one of the victims. Bottom, burial of victims in a mass grave. Credit: Agence-France Presse