(photo credit: AP [file])
Amid ongoing concerns over the safety of scores of public buildings, the two co-owners of Jerusalem's Versailles banquet hall, which collapsed during a wedding four years ago, were sentenced to two and a half years in prison Sunday by the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court.
Avraham Adi and Efraim Adiv were ordered jailed for 30 months, while a third co-owner, Uri Nissim, received four months of community service and a four-month suspended sentence.
The three men had been convicted in the same court last year of 23 counts of causing death by negligence for the building collapse, one count for each of the fatalities in the disaster.
Adi and Adiv said after the morning court ruling that they would appeal the sentencing.
Twenty-three people were killed and nearly 400 injured when the Versailles banquet hall collapsed during a wedding on May 24, 2001. It was the worst civilian disaster in Israel's history.
Police and Technion engineers have deemed that a combination of shoddy construction, reckless renovation, building violations, and criminal negligence led to the collapse.
In his verdict, Judge Haim Lee-Ran said the three hall owners should have called in an engineer when they saw a depression in the hall's dance floor, and not tried to take care of the problem themselves.
"I repeatedly told myself I had to avoid judging their actions with hindsight, by rewinding the flow of events. I asked myself if any venue owner would have been absolved of responsibility toward his guests by fixing the tiles without consulting an engineer. The answer is no," Lee-Ran said.
In mixed reaction to the sentencing, prosecutors expressed satisfaction with the 30-month jail term handed down, bereaved family members said that it was too light, while the defendants deemed it too harsh.
"There is no doubt that although this is an unprecedented punishment [for such a crime], this is a worthy punishment considering the severity of the defendants' negligence and the extent of the disaster," the two prosecutors in the case, Irit Abulafia and Roi Brauner, said after the court sentencing.
"The blood of our dead cries out," said Alice Dror, mother of the groom Asi Dror.
In contrast, Adiv asserted that the owners were unfairly singled out in the public trial.
"We are victims exactly like the [bereaved] families," he said.
The banquet hall was built using a cheap lightweight construction method, known as Pal-Kal, which uses metal plates and thin layers of cement that was popular in the 1980s but was subsequently banned by the Israel Standards Institute in 1996 because it does not meet safety requirements.
Hundreds of buildings, including dozens of banquet halls, schools, and shopping centers, were built nationwide using the substandard process.
A 1998 Interior Ministry directive to all municipalities and local councils to check all buildings constructed using the hazardous method went unheeded by most cities and towns, including the Jerusalem Municipality.
A state commission of inquiry into the safety of public buildings set up in the wake of the banquet hall collapse concluded in December 2003 that another 'Pal-Kal' disaster was just a matter of time, since the government has largely failed to act on the issue.
"Why do I have to raise children in the State of Israel in fear of Pal-Kal?" asked Avraham Cohen, whose 21-year-old daughter Shonit was killed in the banquet hall collapse.
Cohen, who lambasted the co-owners of the banquet hall for their defense of "not knowing, not seeing and not hearing," suggested that it should be a requirement for engineering students in Israel to visit the site of the banquet hall disaster at the start of their studies to learn from the past.
The separate manslaughter trial of the inventor of Pal-Kal, Eli Ron, is under way at the Jerusalem District Court.
A multi-million-dollar civil suit filed by bereaved family members is also still pending in a Jerusalem court.
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