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5 convicted in mall fire that killed 13 toddlers; Qatari ambassador sentenced

From Jomana Karadsheh, CNN
June 20, 2013 -- Updated 2223 GMT (0623 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A member of Qatar's royal family is among those sentenced to six years in prison
  • The fire at a Doha mall last year killed 19 people, including 13 toddlers
  • Witnesses described a chaotic rescue operation that lasted for hours
  • The parents of 2-year-old triplets who died want the full investigative report released

Abu Dhabi (CNN) -- Five people were found guilty Thursday of death by negligence after a Doha mall fire killed 19 people, including 13 toddlers, a spokesman for the victims' families said.

Qatar's ambassador to Belgium, Sheikh Ali Bin Jasim Bin Al Thani, and his wife were sentenced to six years in prison and were ordered to pay the victims' families blood money, the spokesman said. The couple owned the Gympanzee day care center where the children died in the May 2012 blaze.

The ambassador is also a member of Qatar's royal family.

Read more: 5 detained in probe of Qatar mall fire

Two other defendants -- the chairman of the Villaggio mall and the deputy mall manager -- were also sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to pay blood money, the spokesman said.

Blood money is restitution in Arab Gulf countries paid toward families of victims. The amount ordered in this case was not immediately disclosed.

A fifth defendant -- a representative of Qatar's ministry of trade and business -- was sentenced to five years in prison.

Part of an investigation's report said the day care center "was not licensed as a nursery by the ministry of social affairs and thus did not have the necessary safety conditions."

The victims' families issued a joint statement Thursday, saying they were pleased with the verdict -- but wanted more answers.

"We still have more questions. To get these much needed answers, we call upon the State of Qatar to release the (full) official report into the disaster. A simple request, that will help us all understand what went wrong," the families said.

"We will not stop in our fight for justice. We will not stop in our fight for the truth. We will not stop in ensuring that this can never happen again."

The relatives also said they were "disgusted" by the mall's "continual insensitive behavior."

"Yesterday, Villaggio reopened the area destroyed by the fire. Not once have we been shown the dignity to be able to grieve privately where our children were killed," the families said. "The owners and management, some of whom have been on trial, have shown us no remorse. They should be ashamed."

Family loses all three children

More than a year after the fire, Martin Weekes is no closer to understanding why his triplets perished.

"The phrase we tend to use is that we are deafened by silence -- the silence in our house because we had a really busy house with three 2-year-olds," Weekes said before the verdict. "Similarly, we have been deafened by the silence by the authorities in Qatar who just failed to communicate or show any interest."

Qatari officials have not responded to CNN's requests for comment on the fire at the Villaggio shopping mall in Doha, which also killed four nursery staff and two firefighters.

But in the aftermath of the tragedy, authorities offered their condolences to the families and launched an investigation that concluded the fire was caused by a short circuit and quickly spread because of flammable paint.

The investigation blamed the May 2012 tragedy on "lack of adherence to laws, systems and measures by all concerned parties to different degrees."

But the investigating committee has only released highlights of its findings so far. The Weekes and other families want the entire report made public.

A harrowing scene

Witnesses described a chaotic rescue attempt that lasted for hours, with children and adults trapped in the day care center.

Christine Wigton, an American living in Doha, told CNN she heard "a buzzer, not very loud" as she walked into the mall, but heard no loud alarms as smoke built up inside. Children were eating at some of the restaurants and no one was trying to escape, she said.

"When I got a little bit closer, I realized the smoke was just increasing and people were still shopping," Wigton said. "And the smoke kept getting heavier and heavier."

Wigton said she left when the smoke became "too much."

"There were no sprinklers, and there was nothing that would tell somebody that something was wrong," she said.

Built in 2006, the Villaggio mall advertised itself as "the newest and the largest entertainment center in Doha." The Venice-themed complex features gondola rides down an indoor canal, an artificial sky, a 13-screen movie theater, a theme park, a skating rink and a bowling alley.

Stymied joy

As Weekes and his wife press for answers, the family is expecting twins in August. But that joy will be tempered.

"It's not like the first time. I mean, the first time we were really quite excited about everything. This time, I guess we don't want to get our hopes up because we have just seen so much taken away so rapidly," the father said. "We almost haven't allowed ourselves to really celebrate and enjoy."

After all, no one can replace the young triplets whose lives were cut far too short.

"I wish that they were here to share with their new brother and sister."

CNN's Holly Yan and Schams Elwazer contributed to this report.

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