Thu, Dec 07, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Violence erupts over Paraguay market fire verdict

LENIENCY SPARKS RIOT News that a court panel was in favor of lesser manslaughter charges for three men linked to a deadly 2004 fire led to unrest on the streets

AGENCIES , ASUNCION

Relatives and sympathizers of hundreds of victims killed by a supermarket blaze in August 2004 clash with police in Asuncion, Paraguay, on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AP

Rioters set cars alight, looted and blocked streets in Paraguay's capital on Tuesday as anger flared over a court verdict relating to a fire in a supermarket that killed 350 people.

Relatives of the victims and survivors of the 2004 fire wanted a murder conviction for three men -- an owner of the supermarket, his son and a security guard -- who were accused of locking the doors when the blaze broke out.

About 100 family members in a court audience surged toward the judges on Tuesday after the three-member panel indicated it was divided 2-1 in favor of lesser manslaughter charges against three defendants blamed -- rather than willful homicide charges most relatives wanted.

But the hearing was suspended before a decision could be filed, as spectators overturned courtroom tables and tossed chairs, spilling out of the hearing and marching to the supermarket headquarters, where they dumped groceries into the street, lit fires and skirmished for hours with police.

Television pictures showed burning cars lying in the streets as police armed with riot shields, water cannons and tear gas fought to quell the unrest. Crowds of people could be seen throwing stones, and official reports said at least 31 people had been hurt and 30 arrests made.

"In spite of the confusion, the police practically have control of the situation," Interior Minister Rogelio Benitez told local television.

During the unrest -- the worst seen in the South American country in seven years -- hundreds of rioters stormed into a supermarket belonging to the same chain where the fire took place in August 2004.

The impoverished country's worst peacetime tragedy, the fire broke out in a grill restaurant in the vast Ycua Bolanos supermarket on the outskirts of the capital.

It quickly spread, causing the roof to collapse and engulfing an underground parking area. The fire killed 350 people and seriously injured 400.

Prosecutors said the building was not equipped with proper fire escapes or alarms.

The three people convicted on Tuesday were the firm's main shareholder, Juan Pio Paiva, his son Victor Daniel Paiva and security guard Daniel Areco.

They pleaded not guilty, denying the doors had been shut to prevent looting and saying victims had not been able to escape because of the speed with which the flames and toxic gases spread.

The conviction for involuntary manslaughter normally carries a maximum prison term of seven years, while murder can be punished with a 25-year sentence.

"What's happened is painful, though we can't say it's surprising," Prosecutor Edgar Sanchez told reporters after the verdict was given. "Two months ago, we presented a complaint about rumors of bribery, but we didn't think anything would come of it."

"The judges are corrupt and now they'll have to face the consequences. This is inhuman and we urge the people to come and support us," said Liz Torres, a member of an association of victims' families.

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