MADRID, Nov 13 (Reuters) – A Spanish court on Wednesday found the crew and the government not guilty of criminal responsibility in the 2002 sinking of the Prestige oil tanker, Spain's worst ever environmental disaster.
The sinking off the country's northwestern coast coated thousands of kilometres (miles) of coastline, mainly in Spain, with foul-smelling black fuel, and forcing the closure of its richest fishing grounds.
After an 11-year judicial investigation the Galician region's high court said in a verdict and sentence that the disaster was partly due to the 26-year-old tanker's poor state of repair.
But the three judges of the high court concluded it was impossible to establish criminal responsibility and Captain Apostolos Mangouras, Chief Engineer Nikolaos Argyropoulos and the former head of Spain's Merchant Navy, Jose Luis Lopez, were found not guilty of crimes against the environment.
Lopez was the only government official charged in the case.
Mangouras, 78, was found guilty of a lesser charge of disobedience and given a nine month suspended sentence.
After a storm damaged one of its fuel tanks, the ship had spent days drifting at sea with 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on board, having been refused permission to dock by Spanish, Portuguese and French authorities.
It eventually split into two and sank around 250 miles off the coast, continuing to spurt oil into the water from the sea bed.
The captain was accused of disobeying government authorities who wanted the 26-year-old tanker as far from the coast as possible. That decision was correct, the court said.
"The Spanish authorities had the correct advice to evaluate the hypothesis on whether or not the boat should be moved away from the coast," said Chief Justice Juan Luis Pia, as he read the verdict and sentence out loud in a televised court hearing.
Judges said the leak was caused by deficient maintenance which the crew did not know about.
(Reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary; editing by Patrick Graham)
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