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Court Convicts 7 in Toxic Oil Case but Acquits Them of Manslaughter

May 20, 1989

MADRID, Spain (AP) _ A court on Saturday convicted seven people on public health, negligence and fraud charges but acquitted them of manslaughter in the sale of counterfeit cooking oil that caused nearly 700 deaths.

Six others were convicted of lesser health violations and fraud charges, and 24 of the original 37 defendants were acquitted.

Hundreds of people affected by the oil shouted ″Murderers 3/8 We want justice 3/8″ as the verdicts were read.

Special riot police were called in to clear the courtroom. Police outside the court fired rubber bullets in the air to disperse hundreds of the afflicted and their families, who broke windows as they tried to get back inside.

Police arrested at least one woman and several people fainted, but no injuries were reported.

Thousands of people are still suffering from the oil, which affected their lungs and nervous systems, and the government has paid more than $400 million for their health care. Although prosecutors had demanded long prison terms for the principal defendants, the maximum penalty was 20 years.

The defendants included importers, commodities dealers and retailers. Prosecutors say they conspired in the spring of 1981 to sell as cheap olive oil rapeseed oil that had been adulterated with aniline dye and intended for industrial use only.

Vendors later sold the oil in plastic jugs at weekly fairs and markets in Spain.

The harshest sentences went to oil importer Juan Manuel Bengoechea and oil distributors Ramon Ferrero and Jorge Pich. The three were convicted of gross professional negligence.

Bengoechea and Pich also were convicted of violating the public health code, and Ferrero was found guilty of fraud.

Bengoechea was sentenced to 20 years in prison and fined 100,000 pesetas, or $854. He was acquitted of 600 counts of manslaughter.

Ferrero received a 12-year prison sentence. He was acquitted of numerous manslaughter charges. Pich was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Two other defendants - Elias Ferrero and Candido Hernandez - were convicted only of fraud and sentenced to four years and two months in prison each. They also were acquitted of manslaughter charges.

The court also convicted Enrique Salamo and Ramon Alabart of violating the public health code. They each received a prison sentence of four years and two months and were fined $854 each. The court acquitted them of manslaughter.

Bengoechea’s brother, Fernando, was acquitted of manslaughter and health code violation charges.

During the 15-month trial, the three-judge tribunal heard testimony from hundreds of the estimated 23,000 people still suffering the effects of ″toxic syndrome,″ as the illness became popularly known, and from relatives of those who have died from the illness since it was detected in the spring of 1981.

The trial began March 30, 1987, and the tribunal took another 11 months to reach the verdict after testimony ended. It was the longest trial in the history of Spain, which does not have jury trials.

The prosecutor had asked for more than 85,088 years in combined prison sentences for the eight principal defendants. Under Spain’s constitution, time served in prison is limited to 30 years.

The tribunal said the prosecution proved a link between the adulterated rapeseed oil and the deadly illness. The tribunal said the principal defendants were aware the oil was toxic, although the exact nature of the poison was unknown.

The defense claimed there was no proof the oil caused the deaths and illnesses.

It is generally agreed that 8-year-old Jaime Vaquero Garcia, who died May 1, 1981, was the first victim of the oil. His death at the time was attributed to ″acute pulmonory insufficiency.″

The prosecution based its case on 600 deaths, although medical researchers say the number of dead is closer to 700.

The government has paid $406 million in indemnities and health care for those still suffering from the effects of the illness, which affects the lungs and nervous system.

An ongoing, separate judicial investigation into the role of government officials in the case has not resulted in any charges.

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