Paraguay Protesters Clash With Cops Over Court Decision on Supermarket Blaze

Relatives and sympathizers of hundreds of victims killed by a 2004 supermarket fire went on a rampage Tuesday, ransacking supermarket headquarters and clashing with police, after a court indicated it would reduce charges against three defendents.

About 100 family members in a court audience surged toward the judges after the three-member panel indicated it was divided 2-1 in favor of lesser manslaughter charges against those blamed — rather than willful homicide charges most relatives wanted.

But the hearing was suspended before a decision could be filed, as spectators overturned courtroom tables and tossed chairs, spilling out of the hearing and marching to the supermarket headquarters, where they dumped groceries into the street.

The Aug. 1, 2004, blaze claimed 432 lives, most by asphyxiation, as thick smoke swept through a Ycau Bolanos supermarket in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion.

Some 2,000 clients were in the packed supermarket, many in a food court, when the fire broke out, and prosecutors argue that doors were deliberately ordered shut to prevent looting, trapping many of the victims inside.

Juan Pio Paiva and son Daniel Paiva, owners of the Ycau Bolanos market chain, were arrested soon after the blaze along with a store guard.

Tuesday's public court hearing, was held at a converted basketball court to accommodate the victims' relatives. The session, one of several public hearings over the past four months, was immediately halted by the disturbances.

Some 35 police escorted the three judges to safety beneath plastic shields and they weren't reported harmed.

Five police officers and some 15 demonstrators were reported injured, none seriously. Domonstrators lingered for hours outside the supermarket headquarters as riot police cordoned off the building.

Firefighters put out flames in several cars set ablaze in the rioting.

Police were seen leading detained demonstrators away but there was no immediate report on the number of arrests.

The relatives and their supporters said they were angry over what they called a lack of justice in the case, more than two years after the fire.

One judge said she favored a more severe homicide charge, while two judges arguing that manslaughter charges should be applied — reasoning that the supermarket's doors weren't shut in a willful attempt to kill people.

A manslaughter conviction could carry a penalty of up to seven years in prison, while prosecutor Edgar Sanchez complained that a murder charge should be applied as it would be punishable by at least 25 years in prison and restitution to victims' families.

Paraguayan television news footage showed police quelling the uproar amid rubber bullets and tear gas at headquarters of the Ycua Bolanos chain. Demonstrators ripped from the shelves meat, bags of sugar, bread and alcohol, dumping the merchandise into the streets — before police moved in and restored calm.

Lis Torres, president of an independent victims' group, said pressing manslaughter charges would be letting off the supermarket owners too lightly.

"This is a farce, this is a real shame," she said. "Justice does not exist in Paraguay."