* Transocean employees allowed to fly out to visit families
* Employees allowed to travel abroad on day charges filed
* Transocean workers are a Canadian and a Briton
By Jeb Blount
RIO DE JANEIRO, March 26 (Reuters) - The Brazilian judge handling criminal charges against U.S. oil company Chevron , drill-rig operator Transocean and 17 of their employees over a November oil spill granted two of the accused permission to leave Brazil to visit their families, documents posted on Monday on a court Web site showed.
The decision could be a sign courts will be lenient with defendants during a unprecedented Brazilian criminal case that could last years and result in prison sentences of up to 31 years.
The employees, Transocean’s offshore superintendent Gary Marcel Slaney, 58, a Canadian, and British citizen Brian Mara, 45, a Transocean drilling technician, were allowed to leave Brazil on March 21, the day the charges were filed and return April 19, according to documents on the Federal Court Web site.
The pair will have to turn in their passports when they arrive back in Brazil, the judge Claudio Girao Barreto said in his ruling, dated March 20, the day before charges were filed. The 17 had been ordered to remain in the country and turn in their passports on March 17.
Slaney and Mara’s lawyers argued that they hadn’t seen their families in weeks and had already purchased their tickets home before they were ordered to turn in their passports. It could not be immediately established whether the other defendants requested permission to leave the country.
Slaney and Mara allegedly failed to take proper measures to stop the leak. Slaney is also charged with failing to act in accordance with licenses, breaking legal and regulatory norms and altering documents.
Neither Slaney nor Mara could be immediately contacted for comment and Transocean officials in the U.S. and Brazil were not available for comment.
Transocean said last week that the charges against the company are without merit and that it will defend its employees. It also says its employees acted properly.
Neither has a fixed residence in Brazil and both were in the country only to work a multi-week shift on Transocean’s Sedco 706 rig, 120 kilometers off of Brazil’s coast, that drilled the well that leaked in November.
While prosecutors call the leak of about 3,000 barrels of oil one of the worst ecological disasters in Brazil’s history, others consider the charges over the incident excessive.
An official of Brazil’s oil regulator said last week at hearings before a Brazilian Senate committee that the spill caused no detectable ecological damage.
The spill was less than 0.1 percent of the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Transocean officials were not immediately available for comment on Monday. Transocean and Chevron have both said the charges are unwarranted and without merit.