Friday 13 March 2009

Almost a reckoning

Just over three years since she sank at the cost of more than 1,000 lives, the Egyptian owner of the al-Salam Boccaccio 98 ferry has been sentenced to seven years in jail for involuntary manslaughter. Mamduh Ismail, a former member of the Egyptian parliament’s upper house, which is appointed by President Mubarak, had been acquitted in an earlier trial.

Hundreds of victims’ relatives applauded the verdict, though there is no certainty that Mr Ismail will serve his sentence as he left Egypt soon after the disaster, and is now believed to be in Europe, possibly London. Two other defendants, also absent, were sentenced to three years in gaol.

The roll-on-roll-off ferry, which was carrying mainly Egyptian migrant workers and pilgrims home from Saudi Arabia, went down in the Red Sea on the night of February 2, 2006. A fire broke out on the car deck, and the crew were never able to get it under control. Passengers who were alarmed about the thick smoke were told by crew members to go back to bed.

By the time the crew had decided everyone had to abandon ship, she was listing so badly that it was difficult to launch the lifeboats, and more than 1,000 people drowned, with just 388 surviving. At the initial trial in July 2008, Mr Ismail and four other defendants from the ferry company were acquitted, while the captain of another ferry was gaoled for six months for failing to help the al-Salam.

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