A coroner accused the police of a “shambolic” and “cowardly” response to the deadliest terror attack on Britons since the 7/7 London bombings.
Judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith ruled all 30 were “unlawfully killed” when a gunman opened fire at a hotel on a Tunisian beach in June 2015, killing 38 in total. With the exception of two marine guards, no police officers entered the hotel grounds until all 38 tourists had been killed in the hour-long murderous spree of radicalised Islamist Seifeddine Rezgui, he said. At the conclusion of the six-week-long inquest on Tuesday (February 28), Judge Loraine-Smith referred to an officer who “fainted through terror and panic” during the attack, and a guard who took off his shirt to hide the fact he was a law enforcement officer.
Officers heading towards the hotel re-routed away on the pretext of getting more weapons to deal with Rezgui but they already “had everything required to confront the gunman and could have been at the scene within minutes”, the coroner said. He added poignantly: “The delay was deliberate and unjustifiable.”
At the final hearing at London’s Royal Courts of Justice, the coroner said: “The response [from Tunisian police] was at best shambolic and at worst cowardly. “It was certainly ineffective until the death of the gunman at the hands of the National Guard.” He rejected calls from lawyers for some of the dead people’s relatives to rule “neglect” by travel firm TUI or that the hotel owners played a role in their killing. The coroner said the law on neglect did not, in his view, apply to tourists who voluntarily went abroad and that better planning and actions by hotel staff may not have prevented the atrocity.
He added that he had not found a “direct and causal link” between the response of armed officers in the area and the deaths. He said there were a lot of “what ifs” around the case, and better hotel security may simply have meant more people died on the beach. The only factor that might have made a difference was if the hotel guards had been armed, he added.
“Having reviewed the legal advice on gun law in Tunisia, it is clear this was not a realistic option,” he said. “The simple but tragic truth in this case is that a gunman armed with a gun and grenades went to that hotel intending to kill as many tourists as he could.”
Judge Loraine-Smith, who ruled on each of the dead in alphabetical order, added: “My conclusion is that all 30 were unlawfully killed.”
The attack at the five-star Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Sousse claimed the most British victims since the July 7, 2005 bombings in London. The inquest, which began on January 16, heard earlier from Howard Stevens QC, counsel for TUI, that “matters could have been worse” during the terror attack. He said the coroner should not “simply dismiss the security presence”, and that if there were additional CCTV cameras or static guards at the beach gate it “cannot be said that any of these measures would probably have made a difference”. Mr Stevens said that the suggestion that a beach gate should have been shut or locked to stop the attacker entering the hotel did not amount to a “gross failure”. He said the travel company operated on Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice and would not send tourists there if the Government advised “against all or all but essential travel”.
Andrew O’Connor, counsel to the FCO, had urged the coroner to make a “short, neutral and non-judgmental” conclusion.
In March 2015, 24 people were killed in a terror attack at Bardo National Museum in the capital, Tunis, and some of the families of those caught in the Sousse attack said they had been assured by the travel company that it was safe to travel to Tunisia after the Bardo attack. Attack survivor Paul Thompson said that he and his wife were “pushed” towards choosing Tunisia, that they were told the atrocity was a “one-off”, adding that another travel agent likened it to avoiding Skegness if there was an attack in London.
The Tunisian ambassador to the UK, Nabil Ammar, said his country had been unprepared for such an attack and it was unfair to blame police. “How can you imagine that police deliberately wanted people to die?” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Since the attack, he said security in the country and in hotels had improved, and Tunisia was now considered as safe a destination as London. Tunisia should, he added, be shown the same solidarity shown to other countries that have experienced similar attacks. After the inquests, relatives of the British holidaymakers shot dead in the attack said they planned to sue TUI following the coroner’s ruling. In a statement outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Kylie Hutchison, from law firm Irwin Mitchell, representing most of the victims’ families, said: “It is now crucial that the whole travel industry learns from what happened in Sousse to reduce the risk of similar catastrophic incidents in the future.
“On behalf of our clients who lost members of their family and those who suffered injuries in this terrible incident, we will now be preparing to commence civil proceedings against TUI.”