Amnesty International has welcomed the holding to account of eight Cairo city officials convicted of negligence over the deaths of at least 119 people in a rockslide that hit a Cairo slum in September 2008.
All eight defendants, including a vice-governor of the Egyptian capital, were sentenced to jail terms on Wednesday for involuntarily causing deaths and injuries through negligence in connection with the fatal rockslide in Al-Duwayqa, east Cairo. All eight remain free on bail, until an appeal court rules in the case.
The court found that Cairo’s local authorities knew of the risks in the area, meaning the deaths could have been prevented. If the sentences are upheld by the appeal court, the victims of the rockslide and their families will be able to claim compensation.
Some of them received the verdict with joy, proclaiming “Long live justice”. Others expressed frustration that the officials found culpable remain free.
Amnesty International had been campaigning for justice for the victims of the Al-Duwayqa rockslide, and for the evacuation of thousands of poor residents who are forced to live in inadequate and unsafe housing in unstable hillside locations.
The Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights, which acted as a civil party in the trial, said the sentences would not have happened without Amnesty International’s pressure.
“The prosecution of the Cairo city officials represents a major step towards justice for the victims of the Al-Duwayqa rockslide,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“We hope it spurs the Egyptian authorities into taking further action to ensure that all people currently living in dangerous areas around Cairo are properly protected in the future.”
The Manshiyet Nasser Court of Misdemeanours sentenced the vice-governor of Cairo to five years in prison. The seven other defendants were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
They include the head of Manshiyet Nasser Neighbourhood Authority at the time of the rockslide and his predecessor, along with five other employees responsible for building, housing and monitoring rockslide risks in the area.
Amnesty International called for the protection of residents of “unsafe areas” in Cairo in its November 2009 report Buried Alive: Trapped by poverty and neglect in Cairo’s informal settlements. The following month, the Public Prosecutor indicted the eight officials and referred them to court to stand trial.
The court ruled out requests from lawyers acting for the defence and civil parties to hold higher officials accountable and call the Governor of Cairo and the former Minister of Housing, Utilities and Urban Development as defendants.
The rockslide crashed down the Al-Muqattam Hill onto the Ezbet Bekhit informal settlement in Manshiyet Nasser neighbourhood on 6 September 2008.
Twenty-six areas in Greater Cairo have been identified as “unsafe” by a government master plan to develop the city by 2050. In March 2010, Cairo authorities estimated that 17,600 families were living in imminent danger of death in Manshiyet Nasser alone. About 6,300 families from the neighbourhood have been relocated to alternative housing since the rockslide of 2008, although in many cases there were concerns that they had been forcibly evicted.
“The Al-Duwayqa tragedy was a disaster waiting to happen,” said Philip Luther. “The Egyptian authorities owe it to both the victims and those who survived that awful morning to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again.”