TIRANA, Albania (AP) — An Albanian appeals court on Wednesday reduced sentences for several top defendants convicted in a deadly ammunition factory blast and acquitted one defendant. The decision was met with dismay by relatives of the deceased.
The explosion at Gerdec near Tirana in March 2008 killed 26 people, wounded 300 others, destroyed or damaged 5,500 houses and caused the temporary closure of the Albanian capital's airport as unexploded ordnance landed near it.
Investigators said it was started by a lit cigarette, in the factory where some 1,400 tons of explosives, mostly obsolete artillery shells, were stored for disposal.
According to the Tirana court's ruling Wednesday, factory owner Mihal Delijorgji and manager Dritan Minxolli had their terms reduced from 10 to six-and-a-half years and from 18 to 12 years, respectively. Former Defense Ministry official Ylli Pinari's sentence was reduced from 18 to 15 years.
Former army chief of staff Luan Hoxha, who has fled to the United States, had his term lowered from six to five years. All four were convicted of mismanagement and negligence.
The court also acquitted Shpetim Spahiu, a former army general initially sentenced to four years in prison, which he served under house arrest.
Then-defense minister Fatmir Mediu had also been charged with breach of duty over the accident after Parliament agreed to lift his immunity from prosecution. But the charges were dropped when he was subsequently re-elected to Parliament, as Albanian law doesn't allow a lawmaker's immunity to be lifted twice for the same alleged offence.
Mediu is now environment minister.
A handful of relatives of the dead were in court for the decision.
Zamira Durda, whose six-year-old son was killed in the blast, told reporters the verdict was "scandalous and shameful." In a statement, bereaved relatives said: "It is painful that after five years ... we have discovered that the lives of the victims are so little valued."