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MS Estonia: Two Swedish documentary makers cleared of illegally exploring 1994 wreck

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852 people were killed when the ship sank in a storm on 28 September 1994 between Stockholm and Tallinn.
852 people were killed when the ship sank in a storm on 28 September 1994 between Stockholm and Tallinn.   -   Copyright  FILE - AP Photo/RAJ - 10/02/1994
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Two Swedish documentary makers have been acquitted of illegally exploring the wreck of the 1994 MS Estonia ferry disaster.

Director Henrik Evertsson and analyst Linus Andersson were accused of filming the shipwreck using a remote-controlled submarine in September 2019.

In 1995, authorities in Estonia, Finland and Sweden signed an international agreement (Estonia Act) that said the wreck was the final place of rest for victims of the disaster and banned any exploration of the area.

In its ruling, the Gothenburg District Court said the men had "committed acts that are punishable under the so-called Estonia Act".

But the court decided they could not be convicted because they had travelled to the wreck site on a German-flagged ship, a country which was not a signatory to the agreement.

"The men, who are both Swedish citizens, cannot be punished because they have committed the act from a German-flagged ship in international waters," the ruling stated.

"The act is therefore not punishable on the German-flagged ship, which is to be seen as German territory."

'Deadliest peacetime shipwreck in Europe'

A total of 852 people, mostly Swedes and Estonians, were killed when the ferry sank in stormy weather in the Baltic Sea - the deadliest peacetime shipwreck in European waters.

The original inquiry in 1997 concluded that the locking system of the ship's retractable ramp was defective, flooding the car deck and causing the vessel to roll over and sink during the night.

The joint report rejected speculation that the ferry could have sunk due to an explosion on board, or a collision with another ship.

But a 2020 documentary rekindled doubts about the investigation and prompted authorities to probe further. The conclusions of the original inquiry had also been disputed for years by survivors and relatives of victims

"Estonia: the discovery that changes everything" was broadcast in September on the Discovery Channel and revealed the existence of a previously-unknown four-metre hole in the hull.

According to experts interviewed in the documentary, only a massive force from outside could have caused the rupture.

'More information needed to reopen probe'

Until the revelations in the documentary, the countries concerned had been extremely reluctant to re-examine the causes of the disaster.

However, authorities say the information "cannot change the conclusions" on how the MS Estonia sank.

A preliminary report by the Estonian government found that the newly-discovered damage was too small to have sunk the ship as quickly as it did.

"Possible explanation for such damage could be a contact with an underwater object such as a seabed rock," the report stated, adding that Estonia was not opposed to a new investigation.

The Swedish Accident Investigation Authority has also stated that they need more information before reopening an investigation into the 1994 disaster.

The two documentary makers were the first to be tried for violating the international agreement after they were found at the site by the Finnish Coast Guard.

Other members of the documentary team did not face trial because they were not citizens from the countries that signed the treaty to protect the "marine cemetery".

Henrik Evertsson had previously said it was "absolutely essential and important from a journalistic point of view" to explore the site with a camera.

The court in Gotherberg did not consider the findings or the quality of the documentary in its ruling.

In December, Sweden said it was ready to lift the ban on further wreck inspection dives by official investigators, with a change in the law due to come into force in mid-2021.