TIANJIN, Nov. 9 (Xinhua) -- More than a year after a catastrophic industrial accident shocked the nation, a court finally brought justice for 165 people who lost their lives in the Tianjin warehouse blasts on Aug. 12, 2015.
On Wednesday, in the city where the tragedy occurred, 49 suspects stood trial and were given prison terms ranging from one year to life for their roles in the accident.
The blasts, which occurred at a warehouse of Ruihai Logistics Co. Ltd. (Ruihai Logistics) in Tianjin's container port, destroyed 304 buildings, 12,428 cars, and 7,533 containers, incurring economic losses of 6.87 billion yuan (1.01 billion U.S. dollars).
But how did an accident of this magnitude happen at one of China's busiest ports? The trial gave us some answers.
BOSS BYPASSING RULES
According to the court ruling, Ruihai Logistics bears the main responsibility. The company was found to have ignored industrial safety rules and violated municipal district planning by illegally setting up a hazardous materials storage yard.
"Management was chaotic, and safety problems persisted," the ruling said. ' It was found that Ruihai Logistics management, led by board chairman Yu Xuewei, had used a number of dirty tricks to obtain a certificate to store hazardous chemicals at the port. They faked environmental assessment papers, bribed officials and safety evaluation experts, and tactically halted operations to dodge inspections.
Yu was convicted of illegal storage of hazardous materials, illegal business operations, causing incidents involving hazardous materials, and bribery. He was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve and ordered to pay a fine of 700,000 yuan (103,704 U.S. dollars).
His deputy and other senior executives were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 years to life.
A law professor with Tianjin's Nankai University, Liu Shixin, said he was not surprised, since causing incidents involving hazardous materials is a crime punishable by a suspended death sentence in China.
"The court considered the case a 'severe' one because Yu illegally obtained the certificate, hoarded many hazardous materials for long periods of time, and ignored safety rules for handling such materials," Liu said.
OFFICIALS ON THE TAKE
An all-powerful boss would not have been enough to bring about the tragedy without the collapse of government oversight when tempted with bribes, the court found.
Officials of various government agencies involving transportation, ports, customs, industrial safety, city planning, and maritime affairs were found to have willfully failed to perform their duties in connection with the case.
In one case, Ruihai Logistics management gave cash, shopping mall gift cards, and bills of lading for various goods with a combined value of 157,500 yuan (23,333 U.S. dollars) to deputy director of Tianjin transportation and ports administration bureau Li Zhigang and his subordinates. Other officials also accepted cash bribes or were invited to play golf. In return, Ruihai Logistics secured all government approvals to handle hazardous materials at the port, a highly profitable business endeavor.
In court, 25 officials were sentenced to prison terms lasting from three to seven years for dereliction of duty, abuse of power, and accepting bribes. They included head of Tianjin Municipal Transportation Commission, head of state-owned Tianjin Port Holdings Co., Ltd., and head of Tianjin Customs.
Zhao Bingzhi, a renowned criminal law expert with Beijing Normal University, said it is rare to hand such severe sentences to directors of government departments for industrial accidents.
The sentencing, Zhao said, signals a new trend in China's criminal justice system to bring directors of government departments to the frontline in enforcing safety supervision.
"This should sound a warning to those directors," he said.
THIRD PARTIES ASLEEP ON THE JOB
China's law requires technical companies to provide third party evaluation to check safety measures at factories and warehouses.
But in the Tianjin case, this layer of defense was breached as well.
Tianjin Zhongbin Haisheng Safety Evaluation Company (Zhongbin) was approached by Ruihai Logistics to issue safety reports which would allow the company to store explosive chemicals at its container yard.
Prosecutors accused Zhongbin employees of faking evaluation reports even though they knew the yard was not suitable for chemical storage and there were other safety problems. The company received a commission of 50,000 yuan (7,407 U.S. dollars) for the job.
The court sentenced 11 Zhongbin employees, including its board chairman and general manager, to prison terms lasting from 18 months to four years for faking safety documents for Ruihai Logistics.
Chen Weidong, law professor with Renmin University of China, said it is not uncommon for third party agencies to issue safety reports without going to check what is happening on the ground.
"This trial should be a wake-up call to all these third party firms," Chen said. "They are not immune. The justice system will not tolerate their role as accomplices."