Europe

Prestige oil tanker disaster crew acquitted in Spain

The Prestige floats above water moments before sinking off Spain, 19 November 2002
Image caption Six days passed before the stricken tanker finally broke up and sank

A court in Spain has failed to find anyone directly guilty of causing the worst-ever environmental disaster in the country's history.

The oil tanker Prestige sank off northern Spain in 2002, splitting up after being kept out at sea for six days following its first call for help.

It spilled 50,000 tonnes of oil, polluting thousands of miles of coast.

The ship's Greek captain and chief engineer, as well as a senior Spanish official, were acquitted by the court.

However, the 78-year-old captain, Apostolos Mangouras, was convicted of disobeying the Spanish authorities during the crisis and sentenced to nine months in prison - a term he will not serve because of his advanced age.

A fourth defendant, the ship's Philippine second officer, is on the run.

Environmentalists reacted with dismay to Wednesday's verdict.

No cost to state

Image caption Thousands of miles of coastline were polluted
Image caption Tens of thousands of people volunteered to help clean the beaches of the black mess
Image caption Oil was scooped from the sea by Spanish fishermen

"Nobody knows with exactitude what might have been the cause of what happened, nor what would have been the appropriate response to the emergency situation created by the Prestige's breakdown," the judge said in a nationally televised reading of the sentence from the court in A Coruna, the port city close to where the tanker sank.

Spain has been criticised in the past for the decision not to bring the ship into port after its initial call for help, the BBC's Tom Burridge reports.

Mangouras argued in court that the ship had been forced to stay out in the ocean like a "floating coffin".

The spill caused huge damage to wildlife and the environment, as well as the region's fishing industry.

The head of merchant shipping in Spain at the time, Jose Luis Lopez-Sors, was among those acquitted.

As a result of the court's decision, the Spanish state will not be liable for the disaster, our correspondent adds.

Court documents had put the total financial cost of the spillage at 4bn euros (£3.3bn; $5.3bn).

The Bahamas-flagged Prestige was owned by a Liberian-based company called Mare Shipping and chartered by a Swiss-based oil trader called Crown Resources.

Greenpeace's campaigns director in Spain, Maria Jose Caballero, said in a statement: "The sentence shows that in Spain we are not ready to judge an environmental catastrophe, neither to condemn it nor to defend the environment."

A spokesman for Nunc Mais, a grouping of victims of the disaster, said the verdict was "truly disappointing".

"It does not do justice to the conduct of Galician society and the thousands of volunteers who came out here to clean up our coast," Xaquin Rubido was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency.

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