A Spanish court has acquitted all three people charged in the sinking of the Prestige oil tanker off Spain's northwestern coast 11 years ago, which triggered a major environmental catastrophe.

Judge Juan Luis Pia said on Wednesday that the court found no criminal responsibility in the sinking and absolved the three defendants, the ship's Greek captain, his first officer and the former director-general of Spain's Merchant Marine, of crimes against the environment.

The 78-year old captain was found guilty of disobeying authorities during the crisis by resisting attempts to tow the wreck away from shore before it spilled its load, however, and was sentenced to nine months in prison.

The sentence shows that in Spain we are not ready to judge an environmental catastrophe, neither to condemn it nor to defend the environment

Maria Jose Caballero, Spain Greenpeace campaign director

Due to his age, however, Captain Apostolos Mangouras will not go behind bars.

Eleven years to the day after the Prestige made its first distress call, the court ruled that the Spanish maritime chief who ordered the ship out to sea was not to blame for the vast oil slick that followed, nor was Greek chief engineer Nikolaos Argyropoulos, who declared the ship seaworthy despite having structural damage.

The 26-year-old ship ran into problems during a storm on November 13, 2002. It was ordered out to sea and sank six days later.

Judge Pia said in his ruling that Mangouras and "the crew of the Prestige should be absolved" of the charges of environmental crimes since they did not act intentionally nor with serious negligence.

Verdict condemned

Environmental groups and victims of the oil spill voiced anger at the outcome of the trial.

"The sentence shows that in Spain we are not ready to judge an environmental catastrophe, neither to condemn it nor to defend the environment," said Greenpeace's campaigns director in Spain, Maria Jose Caballero.

The ruling "is truly disappointing", said a spokesman for Nunc Mais, a grouping of victims of the disaster, Xaquin Rubido.

"It does not do justice to the conduct of Galician society and the thousands of volunteers who came out here to clean up our coast."

When it broke in two after six days damaged and adrift, the Prestige spilled 63,000 tonnes of fuel oil into the sea, coating beaches in Spain, France and Portugal. The disaster prompted 300,000 volunteers to come out to clean the beaches.

Wednesday's ruling cited new estimates for the scale of the damage: 1,137 beaches and 2,980km of shoreline polluted and between 115,000 and 230,000 seabirds killed.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies