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Acquittals for Europe's 2002 'Prestige' oil tanker spill

A court in northwestern Spain has cleared the captain and chief engineer of responsibility for the 2002 sinking of the Prestige oil tanker. Its spillage of 50,000 tons of oil caused one of Europe's worst such disasters.

On Wednesday, Spain's Galicia regional high court pronounced not guilty verdicts for the tanker's Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras, 78, and chief engineer Nikolaos Argyropoulos, 73.

Mangouras was, however, handed a nine-month suspended sentence on a lesser charge of disobeying Spanish authorities during the oil spill.

The court also acquitted Spain's then director of merchant shipping, Jose Luis Lopez-Sors, who during the trial had testified that he had sent the ship out to sea to lessen environmental damage.

The capsize of the Bahama-flagged Liberian tanker 11 years ago spread thick black oil along 1,700 kilometers of Atlantic coastline spanning Portugal, Spain and southern France.

The spill led to mass deaths of maritime birds and polluted key fishing waters. The clean-up involved 300,000 volunteers. Some still suffer breathing difficulties.

Eigth months of testimony

The court in La Coruna had heard 8 months of testimony from more than 200 experts and witnesses.

Prosecutors had sought jail terms of 12 years for the leading crew members, and 4 billion euros ($5.4 million) in damages, and 5 years for Lopez-Sors, the only official put on trial over the disaster.

Mangouras as former captain had blamed the spill on Spanish government - headed by then prime minister Jose Maria Aznar - for its order that the tanker be towed out to sea with a crack in its hull.

Spanish, Portuguese and French authorities had denied the Prestige permission to dock and argued over responsibilities.

Disaster exacerbated, says company

Lawyers representing the Mare shipping company which ran the Prestige argued that the decision to move the tanker had turned a minor oil spill into a disaster.

Pronouncing Wednesday's verdict at a televised hearing, Judge Juan Luis Pia said the relocation out to sea was correct.

"The Spanish authorities had the correct advice to evaluate the hypothesis on whether or not the boat should be moved away from the coast." he said.

Poor maintenance

The three-judge panel also found that the original leak was caused by deficient maintenance that the crew did not know about.

It was transporting oil for a Russian company based in Switzerland.

The tanker split into two and eventually sank 400 kilometers (250 miles) off the coast. The wreck continued to spew oil from the sea bed at a depth of 4 kilometers.

Spain later used submersibles to remove 13,000 tons still trapped.

The capsize also fueled lengthy debate about protecting Europe's offshore waters and future ship design.

ipj/rg (dpa, AFP)