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Egypt Train Workers Plead Innocent

April 27, 2002

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CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Eleven Egyptian railway employees pleaded innocent Saturday to charges of gross negligence that resulted in the deaths of more than 360 people, saying they were the scapegoats in Egypt’s worst train disaster.

The low-ranking employees, including a maintenance engineer, train conductors, and safety personnel, are accused in the Feb. 20 fire that engulfed a passenger train shortly after it left Cairo. The prosecution said 361 people died, although at the time of the accident, officials put the death toll at 364. The discrepancy could not be immediately reconciled.

``We are treated unjustly because we are lower-ranking employees in the (railway) authority,″ said Mamdouh Abdel-Rahman, a train conductor. His co-defendant, mechanical engineer Ali Amer, said the accused were ``scapegoats.″

The former head of the authority and the former minister of transportation should be the first people questioned, Abdel-Rahman said. Both senior officials have resigned following the fire.

Amer and his deputy are additionally charged with making false statements that the train was properly equipped with fire extinguishers before it set out on its fatal journey. The criminal offense carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The neglect charges, a misdemeanor, carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison.

The workers allegedly failed to ensure the train was equipped with functioning fire extinguishers, allowed too many passengers onboard and didn’t use the train’s breaks as it traveled for 15 minutes in flames.

The courtroom in central Cairo was packed with lawyers, employees of the railway authority and family members, reflecting the intense public interest in the case.

``If these (employees) have committed a crime, then we are all criminals like them,″ shouted Abdel Ghani Helmi, a maintenance technician, who was among the scores of railway employees expressing solidarity with their colleagues.

``These (defendants) are innocent. The real ones responsible are out on the loose,″ said Nabil el-Hilali, a veteran human rights lawyer defending the employees.

The presiding judge, Saad Abdel-Wahad, turned down a request to release the defendants on bail. The court summoned for questioning the former head of the authority, Ahmed Sherif el-Sheik, the head of transport police and other senior officials. The session was adjourned until May 25.

The fire was the worst accident in the history of the 150-year-old Egyptian rail system. The government-funded system, that employs about 97,600 people and has a debt of 17 billion pounds (dlrs 3.7 billion), has long been considered unsafe, inefficient and plagued by accidents. Parliamentary reports say about 14,000 people had died in train accidents in the last 25 years.

The defense complained that the case file did not include the final report of the railways’ technical committee formed to investigate the cause of the fire. The investigation concluded that the fire was caused by ``a visible thermal source,″ possibly a gas cylinder or a kerosene stove.

``The government’s response was so insolent,″ said Safaa Zaki, one of the defense lawyers. ``(The prime minister) was supposed to apologize, instead he attacked people’s behavior. This hurts.″

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