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4 found guilty in Tonga ferry disaster

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Four men were found guilty of manslaughter Friday in connection to the 2009 sinking of a packed passenger ferry in Tonga that was one of the South Pacific nation’s worst disasters, media reports said.

The captain and first mate of the Princess Ashika, the former chief of the company that operated the ship, and the department head that signed a seaworthiness order for the vessel were found guilty of manslaughter by negligence by a Supreme Court jury, the Matangi Tonga news website reported.

They face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Justice Robert Schuster ordered the men to he held in police custody until a sentencing hearing on Monday.

The Aug. 5, 2009 sinking of the Princess Ashika with 74 passengers aboard shocked Tonga, a genteel South Pacific nation of more than 175 islands that relies heavily on ferries to transport people and goods between atolls.

The ship went down in stormy seas late as night, as most of the passengers slept below decks. Only two bodies were recovered.

An extensive inquiry concluded the ship was unseaworthy and should not have been in service, triggering a scandal in the country over who authorized the purchase of the vessel.

Those found guilty were John Jonesse, a New Zealander who is the former managing director of the Shipping Corp. of Polynesia that operated the ferry, its captain Makahokovalu Tuputupu and first mate Semisi Pomale, and the acting director of the government Marine and Ports Department Viliami Tu’ipulotu.

They were charged with the manslaughter of Vae Fetu’u Taufa, a 21-year-old mother whose body was one of the two recovered after the disaster, in deep waters off the main island of Tongatapu.

The shipping company also faced a range of charges relating to responsibility for the seaworthiness of the ferry, and was found guilty by the same jury.

Prosecution witnesses gave evidence at the trial that the ferry showed signs of structural deficiencies, Matangi Tonga reported.

Defense lawyers argued that the men should be found innocent because the ship had a valid certificate of seaworthiness.

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