MANILA (AFP) - A Philippine court on Thursday sentenced nine people to jail for a fire that killed 162 people at a disco in 1996, in a decision that highlighted the country's painfully slow justice system.
Survivors and anti-crime groups welcomed the ruling, but were anguished that it had taken so long and expressed fears that some of those found guilty had fled the country, with a court official admitting the whereabouts of the nine were unknown.
In one of the Philippines' deadliest fires, 162 people were killed and 94 others injured after becoming trapped when the Ozone Disco in a commercial district of northern Manila went up in flames.
In Thursday's ruling, seven city engineers were sentenced to up to 10 years in jail for allowing the nightclub to operate without adequate safety precautions, court administrator Teresa Pabulayan told AFP.
The Ozone Disco's owner and treasurer were given the same sentences, according to Pabulayan, but she would not specify the exact number of years given, saying only it was between six and 10.
"The engineers gave unwarranted and preferential advantage to the Ozone disco owners. They failed to detect structural and fire safety deficiencies," she said, summarising the Manila anti-graft court's ruling.
The nine will not be immediately arrested as they have 15 days to appeal the ruling, Pabulayan said, adding she did not know where they were.
"After 18 years, finally justice is served," Stephen Santos, president of a group that represents the survivors, told local television channel ANC.
However Santos voiced concern about the time it took for the verdict to be delivered, and said he feared those convicted had left the country.
Dante Jimenez, founder of an anti-crime advocacy group that helped the survivors with court cases, said some of the survivors had died before justice was served.
"This reflects how rotten the justice system is," Jimenez told AFP.
Court cases in the Philippines typically take many years to complete.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said last month she was hiring more judges and finding ways to hasten legal procedures to clear massive backlogs that burden judges with as many as 4,000 cases at a time.
"We want to say that in the Philippines, it's no longer justice delayed and therefore justice denied," she said.