An Albanian court on Monday sentenced 19 people to prison for a series of explosions at an ammunition disposal factory that killed 26 people, but angry relatives of the victims insisted the punishments were far too lenient and that top government officials have avoided justice.
Some 300 more people were injured and 5,500 nearby homes damaged or destroyed in the explosions on March 15, 2008, at the disposal factory in Gerdec, near Tirana, the capital. The blasts sent shrapnel and shell fragments raining down on homes and vehicles, and houses more than a mile away were damaged by the blast.
The Tirana court issued the guilty verdicts for 19 defendants, sentencing them to between one and 18 years on charges of gross mismanagement and related offenses, while nine others were cleared. Murder charges initially brought against them were dropped.
Prosecutors had sought life imprisonment for three of the defendants.
Inside the court, some relatives of the blast victims said they were outraged by the verdict, and maintained that officials including the then-defense minister, had not been properly held to account. Lawyers vowed to appeal some of the verdicts.
Zamira Durda, whose six-year-old son was killed while playing in the back yard of their home near the blast site, tried to block the courtroom door in protest.
"They have killed my son for the second time," she said, sobbing.
The Socialist opposition blames the deadly explosions on corrupt officials in the ruling conservative coalition, claiming they ignored safety regulations while profiting from the disposal of obsolete Communist-era weapons from China and Russia.
"We still wonder who killed our beloved ones. After four years of marathon sessions of the justice system, they (judges) discovered who damaged the homes' surrounding walls, who stole the ammunition, who falsified the documentation, but who killed our 26 beloved ones remains an enigma," the families said in a joint statement.
The former head of the Defense Ministry weapons department, Ylli Pinari, and a senior manager at the private ammunition disposal factory, Dritan Minxolli, were each sentenced to 18 years imprisonment.
Another top ministry official, Sokol Ngjeci, and the owner of the ammunition disposal company, Mihal Delijorgji, received 10 year sentences. The former head of the army's chief-of-staff, Luan Hoxha, was sentenced to six years.
Other defendants were sentenced from one to four years, while the weapons disposal company was fined with 25 million leks (euro175,000; or $230,000).
Fatmir Mediu, who was defense minister at the time of the blasts and is the current environment minister, had been charged, but they were dropped in 2009 after he was re-elected to Parliament.