5 Convicted in Arad Festival Disaster

The Ashdod Magistrate's Court yesterday convicted five people of causing death through negligence in connection with the Arad Festival disaster six years ago, in which three teenagers died.

A sixth defendant was acquitted on the grounds of reasonable doubt.

The disaster began when organizers of the 1995 Arad music festival sold more than 26,000 tickets for the concluding concert on August 18, even though the site was licensed to hold only 18,000 people. In addition, some 8,000 ticket vouchers were distributed to young customers by Bank Hapoalim.

Thus at 10 P.M., when the final concert was due to begin, some 10,000 youths were still trying to push their way into the already packed site, and continued pushing even after the gates were shut. As a result of the tremendous pressure, some of the iron support beams around the main gate collapsed, trapping hundreds of teens underneath. Three teenagers at the bottom of the heap were crushed to death.

In addition to the massive overselling of tickets, the indictment charged, the organizers, municipal authorities and police had been guilty of a number of other lapses that contributed to the disaster: Safety permits for the site were issued without proper inspections being performed; the emergency exit was poorly placed, which hampered efforts by rescue workers to help the injured; there were not enough police at the site to cope with the crowds, nor were sufficient emergency personnel stationed there.

Furthermore, all of these failings occurred despite the fact that only two years earlier, similar problems of overcrowding occurred during an Aviv Geffen concert at the site - from which organizers should have learned a lesson.

Only two and a half years after the disaster occurred, due to unremitting pressure from the victims' families, did the prosecution finally file indictments in the case, and the trial then lasted another three and a half years. Yesterday, however, the court finally convicted five defendants of negligent manslaughter, as follows:

l Yossi Bender, who ran Hadran, the agency that distributed the tickets for the festival. Bender was also convicted of obstructing justice, since a few hours after the disaster occurred, he erased some 5,000 ticket sales from his computer in order to conceal the fact that the number of tickets issued had exceeded the permitted maximum by about 8,000.

l Ro'i Schwartz, the festival producer, who was largely responsible for the security arrangements and obtaining the safety permits. The court found that he also failed to properly supervise the number of tickets sold.

l Avinoam Werbner, Arad's city manager, who was director-general of the festival association. He was responsible for licensing and approving the site, and the court found that he neglected to have professional inspectors carry out the requisite safety checks.

l Brigadier General Moshe Avni was commander of the Negev Region police at the time of the disaster. He was responsible for issuing police permits for the festival, and failed to ensure that the proper safety requirements had been met. He also failed to deploy an appropriate police presence at the site.

l Superintendent Shlomo Abutbul, then head of the Negev police's operations division, was also responsible for the lack of a proper police deployment at the site.

The court acquitted the sixth defendant, Moshe Glantz, who headed the festival's administrative staff, on the grounds that he was subordinate to Schwartz and had informed his boss of all his actions.

The sentencing will take place at a later date.

Orli Alkariv, whose daughter Naama was killed in the disaster, said after the verdict that she hopes lessons will be learned so that similar disasters do not happen in the future. Dr. Miki Peled, whose son Eitan was also killed, said that the authorities have too often chosen not to hold anyone personally responsible for such disasters, and this set the stage for both the Arad disaster and others that followed, such as the collapse of the Maccabiah bridge and the recent collapse of the Versailles wedding hall.

In addition to the criminal charges, the families of Naama Alkariv and Chen Yitzhak - the third teen killed in the disaster - filed a civil suit for NIS 2 million against the festival organizers. Attorney Haim Cohen, representing the families, said that in light of yesterday's verdict, they now plan to increase the amount of damages they are requesting.