SPAIN's Supreme Court has sentenced an 81-year-old ship's captain to two years in jail, overturning a lower court ruling that cleared him of criminal responsibility after a major spill in 2002.
The news of the court ruling hit the Hong Kong based Asian Shipowners Forum (ASF) hard. "It is wrong and deeply troubling that seafarers should be singled out for blame," said the ASF of a man who has already been jailed almost three months after a major crude oil spill from the 81,589-dwt crude carrier Prestige in a storm.
"The actions of Capt Apostolos Mangouras were described as 'exemplary' by the vessel's Bahamian flag state. With incredible bravery in very difficult conditions, he did all he could to protect his crew, the ship and the environment," said the ASF statement.
"It is a pity," said Robert Ho, chairman of the ASF ship insurance and liability committee, "that the court overturned the lower court, and substituted findings that cannot be seen as credible and plausible.
"This is a worrying sign that some states, even well developed countries appear willing to manipulate the legal process to meet their short-term and political needs," said Mr Ho.
"To heap full blame on an octogenarian ship's master some 14 years after the event cannot be correct," said the ASF statement.
The ASF also expressed concern that everyone involved ashore escaped criminal conviction, despite the fact that the request made by Capt Mangouras in the early stages of the incident for a place of refuge that was denied, and subsequent 'orders" from ashore did not take the actual situation into account.
According to a statement issued by the court, he was convicted of recklessness resulting in catastrophic environmental damage.
This happened after a storm damaged one of the Prestige's fuel tanks and spent many days drifting at sea after the docking permission was refused by Spanish, Portuguese and French authorities.
The Bahamian-flagged, Liberian-owned tanker eventually split into two and sank about 250 miles off the coast, spurting oil into the water from the sea bed.
The vessel was overloaded by at least 2,000 tonnes of fuel and the master was accused of guiding the tanker in treacherous conditions with full knowledge of its weakened structure.
The vessel was sailing to Gibraltar which released an estimated 63,000 tonnes of oil along the Galicia coast and forced the closure of the country's richest fishing grounds.
The ruling opens the door to damage claims against the captain and the insurer, the London Steamship Owners Mutual Insurance Association, with one prosecutor calling for more than EUR4 billion (US$4.3 billion).
ASF is a voluntary organisation of the shipowner associations of Australia, China,Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea and the Federation of ASEAN Shipowners' Associations comprising shipping associations of ASEAN countries.