Image: Egyptian protesting ferry owner's conviction
Nasser Nouri  /  AP
An Egyptian activist outside the courthouse on Wednesday wears a slogan critical of Mamdouh Ismail, the owner of a ferry which sank three years ago, killing more than 1,000 people.
updated 3/11/2009 4:34:03 PM ET 2009-03-11T20:34:03

The wealthy owner of a ferry that sank three years ago in the Red Sea, killing more than 1,000 people, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and negligence Wednesday and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Hundreds of victims' family members packing the courtroom in the Red Sea port city of Hurghada responded to the verdict with applause and shouts of "long live justice," but others protested at what they saw as an overly light sentence for ferry owner Mamdouh Ismail.

The ruling overturned an acquittal last July that sparked outraged from many in Egypt who believed the wealthy businessman and former lawmaker was being protected by his political connections.

"The evidence showed grave negligence," said the verdict, a copy of which was provided to The Associated Press. "Instead of providing a speedy rescue to the victims from drowning and injury, the defendants spent hours and hours ... trying to find ways to escape their duties."

In the course of the botched rescue attempt, some victims were left stranded in the water for up to 36 hours.

The appeals court sentenced Ismail in absentia because he and two officials from his company who were also charged in the case fled the country shortly after being ordered to stand trial. Opposition lawmakers have accused senior Egyptian officials of helping them escape to Europe.

The court also upheld a ruling against the captain of another ferry who failed to respond to the foundering vessel's distress call and received a six-month jail sentence last July.

One of the families' lawyers, Onsi Ammar, described the verdict as "historic" and said relatives that had refused to hold funerals in protest of the way the case was handled in the courts will finally hold a mass funeral in Egypt's capital, Cairo.

'Twisted justice' overturned
"The twisted justice has been overturned," said Ammar.

Outside the courtroom, some victims' families danced and others wailed, while holding pictures of their slain relatives and waving banners. One banner read "Punish those who killed my son."

A man dressed as a pirate — complete with a plastic sword, iron hook and black eye patch — wore a sign that said "Mamdouh Ismail the Pirate" next to an image of skull and crossbones.

The Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 sank in February 2006 after fire broke out in its vehicle bay while traveling from Saudi Arabia to Egypt. Most of the more than 1,000 victims were Egyptian workers returning home.

A parliamentary investigation found "a wicked collaboration" between the company and the Egyptian Commission of Maritime Safety, which allowed the ferry to operate while failing to meet minimum safety requirements. Both the company and the government were also criticized for failing to respond quickly to the sinking, which struck a deep chord in Egypt where official negligence is often blamed for large accidents.

The ferry sinking lent credibility to longtime charges that President Hosni Mubarak's government has abetted corruption by wealthy businessmen close to powerful members of his regime. Ismail was a member of parliament's upper house at the time of the accident.

Egypt's government sought to deflect the criticism by opening the parliamentary inquiry, lifting Ismail's parliamentary immunity and ordering him to pay $57 million in compensation to the victims' families. But many of the families rejected the compensation, preserving their right to sue the company.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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