Ecological disaster

Judge regrets “missing people” at 2002 Prestige oil disaster trial

Nine months of testimony concludes with sentence expected in November

The captain of the Prestige, Apostolos Mangouras, during the oil-spill trial on Wednesday.
The captain of the Prestige, Apostolos Mangouras, during the oil-spill trial on Wednesday.Gabriel Tizón

After nine months of testimony and the submission of evidence, a judge on Wednesday announced he will pass sentence mid-fall on the Prestige disaster - Spain's worst environmental catastrophe in modern times.

In a rare move, Judge Juan Luis Pía went to the press room at the A Coruña courthouse to give reporters his impressions on the case and also hand down some strong criticism. "Obviously there are more people who need to be held responsible for the incident - both politicians as well as non-policy makers," he said.

Pía, who will hand down the sentence, believes that more defendants, other than the former director of the Merchant Marine, José Luis López Sors, should have been sitting in the dock.

As soon as he announced that the trial was over and ready for sentencing, Pía went to the press room to describe what he called "large gaps" in the case involving an oil spill that led to a massive environmental disaster.

The clean-up of the oil spill cost the Spanish state about 4.3 billion euros

"There were a lot of missing defendants who should have been brought to trial," Pía said. Among those he said should have been held responsible were the "politicians" who were in charge at the time and the directors of the shipping company.

In 2002, some 50,000 tons of crude spilled into the Atlantic when the Prestige oil tanker broke up off the coast of Galicia, polluting thousands of miles of shoreline. It took lawyers eight years to investigate the case and it was two more before it went to trial. López Sors allegedly ordered the ship out to sea before the disaster occurred.

According to Judge Pía, this macro-trial, with three retirees as defendants, has been "excessive, meaningless" and expensive. He pointed out that when the sentences are handed down in early November, it will be 11 years since the disaster occurred.

Apostolos Mangouras, the Greek captain of the Prestige, is one of the defendants.

"I lacked a lot of things, and a lot of people [who were not charged] to make my ruling" on who was responsible for the disaster, the judge said.

Although the judge is confident that the ruling will be "acceptable, standard and understandable, without trying to set jurisprudence," he predicts that the sentences will be appealed at the Supreme Court.

Prosecutors believe that the entire clean-up cost the Spanish state around 4.3 billion euros.

The presiding judge also noted that the attempt by the Spanish government to sue ABS - the powerful US shipper that authorized the aging tanker to ship the petroleum - in the United States, a case that was eventually dismissed, "greatly hurt" the trial.

Nevertheless, Pía was pleased that for the first time in a process this long "no one had asked for the case to be dismissed," which in his opinion meant that all the parties wanted justice. In his final statement, Mangouras defended his actions and also took time to thank "the Galician people."

"They had to put up with 10 years of a continuous trial," he said.

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