Estonia shipwreck claimants have low hopes for compensation hearing

Stockholm (AFP) - Survivors and families of the victims of the 1994 Estonia ferry disaster that claimed 852 lives hope the shipbuilder and certification agency will finally be held accountable when a French court hears their lawsuit on Friday.

But, weary and disillusioned after 25 years of legal to-and-fros, they say they have low expectations.

"When I heard about it I was surprised because I thought the case had been dropped a long time ago," said 66-year-old Elisabet Nilsson, who lost her husband in the tragedy.

The 155-meter ferry MS Estonia, carrying 989 passengers and crew, sank in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Finland on the night of September 27-28, 1994.

An international probe concluded in 1997 that the retractable bow visor had opened in heavy seas, allowing water to flow onto the car deck and destabilise the vessel.

But neither the German shipbuilder Meyer-Werft nor the French agency Bureau Veritas that deemed the ship seaworthy were ever held responsible for the accident.

Now, almost 25 years on, 1,116 survivors and beneficiaries are seeking 40.8 million euros ($46 million) in damages from the two.

Their lawsuit is to be heard by a French court in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris where Bureau Veritas is based, and is scheduled to last two days, Friday and Monday.

Nilsson, who with her two sons is among the claimants, said the survivors and families of the victims had been repeatedly let down over the years, and didn't think the Nanterre proceedings would be any different.

"Since Estonia has never been properly investigated, I don't have much hope for this hearing either," she said.

- 23 years of proceedings -

Shortly after the accident, Swedish authorities opposed a refloating of the ship and designated the area a sea grave, prohibiting any exploration of the wreckage -- and helping conspiracy theories flourish.

Survivors and relatives, who have previously called for new independent probes into the cause of the accident, were swiftly compensated for material damages from the now-bankrupt Estonian shipowner Estline.

But this is the first time a court will decide the question of accountability.

The lawsuit was first filed in 1996, making it hard for some families and survivors to follow the drawn-out legal proceedings, said Mart Raudsepp, a representative of the Memento Mare organisation that acts to preserve the memory of the victims.

"I don't have any expectations from these proceedings. The wheels of justice turn so slowly, I doubt the court will be able to find out who is responsible for this tragedy," he told AFP.

Raudsepp, whose 17-year-old son died on the ferry, said it had been so hard to keep up with the case that he wasn't even sure if he was still among the claimants.

"We have received no information about what is going on in France, what the court meetings will be like, who the claimants are and who the defendants are," he said.

"No-one has told us anything. I can't even say if the families of the shipwreck victims are participating in the process at the moment," said Raudsepp.

While a majority of the victims, 501 people, were Swedish, Friday's hearing has not received any media attention in their country.

When contacted by AFP on April 10, one of the Swedish survivors, 54-year-old Kent Harstedt who is now a member of parliament, said he was not even aware the hearing was taking place.

He said he was not a claimant in the suit, but only because he was never asked to participate when it was originally filed and only found out about it years later.

As he was not involved, he said it was difficult to know what to expect, but said he hoped the court would get to the bottom of the question of accountability.

"I hope it isn't just quickly brushed aside but given a proper trial, like it deserves," he told AFP.