Two Swedish men were acquitted on Monday of violating a maritime grave site by diving near the wreck of a Baltic Sea passenger ferry that sank in 1994, claiming 852 lives.
The two, Henrik Evertsson and Linus Andersson, had denied any wrongdoing during the trial at the Gothenburg district court.
The court ruled that although the duo had violated a Swedish law banning diving at the wreck, the law was not applicable since the acts were conducted from a German-flagged vessel on international waters and Germany is not a party to the law.
The law was based on an international agreement signed by Sweden, Estonia and Finland in 1995 that declared the wreck a grave site. Several other states including Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Britain have also signed on, while Germany has not, the court said.
Evertsson and Andersson were part of a film crew that made a documentary investigating the M/S Estonia sinking. They used a remotely operated vehicle to film the wreck in September 2019, but were detected by a Finnish Border Guard vessel.
After Monday's acquittal, the two defendants expressed relief.
Andersson, who operated the camera, hoped it was "the end of the process" but that it was up to the prosecution to decide whether to appeal.
"We presented many objections... and it seems the court listened to them," Evertsson said.
If convicted, the two men risked fines or up to two years in prison.
It was the first time the law was tested.
Prosecutor Helene Gestrin had called for a suspended sentence and that the pair be fined.
After Monday's verdict Gestrin told Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter she wanted to study the ruling before deciding whether to appeal or not.
Footage from the dive appeared in a recent documentary and showed previously unseen images of two large holes in the hull of the M/S Estonia, sparking renewed interest in what is considered Europe's worst maritime disaster since World War II.
In court, Gestrin rejected the defence's argument that they were engaged in journalistic research. She said their actions constituted a violation of the gravesite, which is protected by law, without any exemptions.
A 1997 inquiry found that the ferry sank after its bow door was torn off in a storm during its journey from the Estonian capital Tallinn to Stockholm. Of the 989 people on board, only 137 survived the ordeal on September 28, 1994.
Most of the bodies were never recovered.
After the footage was released in September, Estonia, Finland and Sweden said they would conduct a joint investigation led by Estonia, the ship's flag state.
Sweden recently started amending a law banning diving at the wreck.
During the trial, Gestrin told the court that the Swedish moves did not change the fact that the two defendants were culpable.
Evertsson was in November awarded a Swedish journalism prize for "Scoop of the Year."
Erik Halkjaer, head of the Swedish branch of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), welcomed the ruling.
The wreck lies in international waters about 100 kilometres south of the Finnish port of Turku.