Philippine court convicts 9 people for graft in 1996 Manila disco fire that killed 162 people

A Philippine court convicted nine people for graft Thursday over a 1996 nightclub fire that killed 162 people, mostly students celebrating the end of the school year.

The Sandiganbayan anti-graft court convicted seven former city engineering officials of suburban Quezon City and two operators of the Ozone disco and handed out sentences of up to 10 years.

About 400 people were packed in the disco when the fire broke out, but many were unable to escape because the emergency exit was blocked by a new building next door.

Ninety-three others were injured in the blaze, one of the biggest nightclub fires in the world in the last 20 years.

The court disqualified the former city officials from ever holding public office for approving the nightclub's building permit despite non-compliance with the building code and giving preferential treatment to the disco's operators.

Stephen Santos, president of a group of the fire survivors, welcomed the court decision but lamented that the verdict took 18 years, in an interview with local television network ANC. He said he was afraid some of those convicted may have already left the country.

Trials in the Philippines normally take many years to conclude, with courts burdened by a huge backlog of cases. Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said last month reforms are being instituted and more judges are being hired.

Two of the nine had been convicted in 2001 by another court for separate crimes of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicides, sentencing them to four years in jail and fined 25 million pesos each ($555,000). They are Hermilo Ocampo, president of Westwood Entertainment, the company that operated the disco, and Ramon Ng, Westwood's treasurer.