CAIRO (Reuters) – An Egyptian criminal court found the owner of a Red Sea ferry not guilty of manslaughter on Sunday over the deaths of more than 1,000 passengers when the vessel caught fire and sank in 2006, court sources said.
Owner Mamdouh Ismail, a member of Egypt’s upper house of parliament at the time of the disaster, was tried in absentia because he left for Britain after the ferry disaster.
The Al Salam 98 ferry caught fire and sank en route to Egypt from Saudi Arabia in February 2006, claiming the lives of 1,034 of the roughly 1,400 people on board.
The court also acquitted four other defendants, including Ismail’s son, but sentenced a sixth defendant, the captain of another ferry, to six months in prison for failing to take steps to save survivors.
The office of the public prosecutor will appeal against all the acquittals, judicial sources said.
The authorities first heard of the disaster many hours after the fire broke out. Ismail was accused of contributing to manslaughter by failing to inform the authorities as soon as he heard of a problem aboard the ferry.
Ismail said that no one on the vessel contacted either him or his company when the fire broke out.
In 2006 a committee investigating the sinking widened the blame to include the state of Panama, under whose flag the boat was sailing.
A parliamentary report on the disaster blamed Ismail for serious violations of safety regulations. It said the ferry had forged safety certificates, the life rafts and fire extinguishers were unfit for use and the ship did not have enough winches to lower rafts into the sea.
Egyptian authorities lifted a freeze on Ismail’s assets in 2006 and removed him and his family from the list of people banned from travelling abroad after he paid about $57 million into a compensation fund for victims of the disaster.