Three British divers arrested three years ago for allegedly trying to pillage a Spanish galleon have been told they will face charges punishable by up to six years in prison.
The men, commercial divers based in Cornwall, learnt this week that they are to face charges of theft and damaging Spain's historic heritage after a three-year inquiry.
The group were arrested in Galicia, north-western Spain, after winning a contract from the Spanish authorities to salvage 220 tons of tin worth up to £650,000 from the Friesland, a Dutch cargo vessel which sank in 1877. Prosecutors allege that as well as diving on the Friesland, the Britons were exploring the remains of an adjacent vessel, the Dom Pedro, a 17th-century galleon laden with gold and diamonds. Investigators found the wrecks had been minimally disturbed and no valuables taken.
Peter Devlin, who ran the diving firm that won the salvage contract, Force 9 Salvage, Malcolm Cubin, from Truro, and Steve Russ, from Porthleven, declared their innocence yesterday and accused the Spanish prosecutors of being heavy-handed. The men insist they were diving only on the Friesland. Mr Cubin said: "At the time of the arrest the police sent divers down who said the site had not been damaged and the only items retrieved were for identification and had a nominal value of a few euros. Being threatened with years in a Spanish jail, plus fines and damages, when I didn't do anything wrong is very worrying."
The men travelled to Spain in May 2002 after winning the salvage contract. They were arrested on 22 June while taking samples from the site to identify the wreckage. They had recovered just one tin ingot when they were detained.
Lengthy periods between arrest and prosecution are not unusual in the Spanish judicial system, which uses investigating judges to inquire into allegations before deciding on whether charges should be brought.
If convicted, the men face three years' imprisonment on two charges each of theft from the wreck and damage to the historic environment.They had to wait six months before recovering confiscated equipment.
Mr Devlin, from Falmouth, said: "I have conducted this commercial operation in a completely professional manner and yet they are trying to make out that we are bunch of opportunist treasure hunters. I have spent my life savings on the project and I still have not recovered from the loss."Reuse content