Prestige Trial Will Resume In A Coruña Next Week

On November 13, Apostolos Mangouras, the master of the ill-fated tanker Prestige, is scheduled to give evidence at a criminal trial in A Coruña.

On that day next week, it will be exactly 10 years since his ship ran into trouble in heavy seas 70 miles off this coastal city in northwest Spain.

The rest is well-documented history: Prestige broke in two and sank, spilling thousands of tonnes of fuel oil and causing one of the worst environmental disasters in Spanish history.

The impact of the casualty spurred wide-ranging changes in international maritime regulation, prompting industry-wide soul searching on issues such as the criminalisation of seafarers and the need for places of refuge.

Now the 77-year-old Greek master stands accused of disobedience and causing environmental damage. Prosecutors are seeking a 12-year prison sentence and hefty financial damages.

Beside him in the dock are Nikolaos Argyropoulos, the ship’s chief engineer, who faces similar accusations to the master, and José Luis López-Sors, the former director-general of Spain’s Merchant Marine Directorate.

Mr López-Sors is accused of grave recklessness for allegedly ordering the vessel away from shore on a course that, some argue, worsened the scale of the spill.

A fourth man, first officer Ireneo Maloto, is also charged in connection to the spill, but his whereabouts are unknown and he is not expected at the trial.

Other parties are named in the case as subsidiary civil defendants, including the vessel’s P&I club, the London Club, shipowner Mare Shipping, manager Universe Maritime and the Spanish government.

In the coming months, 70 lawyers will pick over 230,315 documents and 25 boxes of exhibits as they work through the case.

A preliminary procedural session earlier this month removed any doubt that this would be a heavily contested trial.

At its core are questions about the way the ship’s crew and shore-based authorities responded to the initial stages of the casualty. Did the master disobey orders from the Spanish government? Could the ship have been saved in a place of refuge? Could the extent of the spill have been minimised?

There are questions too about the ship’s condition. Was Prestige heavily corroded and, if so, should someone have raised the alarm before it was too late? Should this ship have been at sea at all?

Ultimately, the trial will seek to establish who, if anyone, was to blame for the Prestige casualty.

In opening statements to the court, Capt Mangouras’ Spanish lawyer, José Maria Ruiz Soroa, questioned whether it was possible for the master to have a fair trial in Spain.

He said the Spanish government had, from the outset, adopted “a terribly belligerent attitude” towards Capt Mangouras following the accident.

Mr Ruiz Soroa raised a number of issues, including an application to have the case adjourned on the basis that Universe Maritime had not been summoned and was not represented in court.

He also asked for documents retrieved by Spanish officials from Prestige before it sank to be ruled inadmissible as evidence, on the basis they had been taken from the vessel without judicial oversight.

However, in an initial 33-page ruling on these and other matters raised during the preliminary hearing, the panel of three judges — Juan Luis Pía Iglesias in the chair, Salvador Pedro Sanz Crego and María Dolores Fernádez Galiño — rejected the application for adjournment. They said Universe Maritime had displayed “an elusive attitude” and an adjournment would add further delay to a trial that had already dragged on “more than is tolerable”.

They also rejected the application regarding the documentation from the ship, though they were critical of the fact it had been retrieved without court oversight and, furthermore, had been in the government’s possession for two months before being handed to the investigating magistrate.

That, they said, reduced the evidential value of the documents. The judges also questioned the value of an independent expert report that backed the Spanish government’s decision to order Prestige away from land.

The author of the report, it was later established, had been involved in crisis meetings at the time of the casualty, meaning there were “solid grounds” to question his impartiality.

In another notable decision, the judges admitted an expert report presented by the state prosecutor’s office that raised the amount of damages stemming from the casualty to €4.4bn ($5.6bn).

The judges also dismissed the “nonsensical” suggestion that Capt Mangouras would not receive a fair trial. They said Spain had demonstrated its capacity to guarantee the fair administration of justice in cases far more complex than this one.

“Not only can Spain do this [in the Prestige case], it is doing it,” the judges said.

The trial has now been adjourned and resumes next Tuesday.

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