Sentences handed down over Paraguay's worst fire

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

A court in Paraguay has completed its trial over the worst fire disaster the country has ever seen. The Ycuá Bolaños supermarket fire in Asunción left 374 dead, 450 others injured and nine missing, presumed dead.

Store owner Juan Pio Paiva, 64, received 12 years imprisonment whilst his son Daniel Paiva, 40, was given 10 years. A security guard, Daniel Areco, was given a five-year sentence while three business associates of the Paivas were cleared of any criminal activity.

2,000 people were in the store when fire broke out on August 1, 2004, including many families with young children. Fire doors were shut to prevent looting, worsening the situation.

The investigation found that flames broke out in a badly built chimney because of inadequately maintained equipment. A lack of fire escapes, fire detection system and fire suppression system all contributed to the disaster. Most of the deaths were caused by asphyxiation due to the smoke. The nine missing bodies are believed to have been completely destroyed by the extreme temperature.

Paiva senior was convicted on the basis that as the owner and chief administrator of the business, including the building, he was responsible for overall safety. His son was responsible for the food court area, the site where the blaze started. The security guard was convicted for blocking the exits, although he was acting on senior orders. The three other businessmen were acquitted as they were not involved in the administration of the store.

The Paivas were both convicted of manslaughter and exposing people to danger within the workplace. Areco was found guilty of negligence.

The three judge tribunal was headed by German Torres. It replaced an earlier trial in 2006, when the court announced that it was 2-1 in favour of more lenient sentences, but got no further as friends and relatives stormed the courtroom and rioted in the streets outside. The court had been going to hand out five-year sentences to the Paivas.

A peaceful protest was also held at yesterday's verdict, with demonstrators shouting "Assassins! Assassins!" and "This kind of justice is injustice!" Ten women who lost relatives fainted in the heat and were hospitalised. The protestors were pressing for those involved to receive the maximum possible sentence of 25 years. One, Lys Torres, vowed to use the appeals courts to press for tougher sentences. "Its an outrage. They're responsible for the death of 400 people and they've been given ridiculous sentences," said Lys, who is a spokeswoman for the relatives and survivors group. "This shows that in this country, people with money can kill with impunity," Bersabe Meza, who lost her husband in the fire, said.

Chief prosecuter Edgar Sanchez, who had also requested maximum sentences, said "My conscience is clear. I've done my job."Meanwhile, relatives laid out a white plastic chair in the streets for each of those killed, adorned with signs bearing such notices as "If there is no justice, the people will rise up."

The ruined store remains standing, graffitied and adorned in tribute to those who died.


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