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Helios defendants acquitted
FOUR people and defunct Cyprus budget airline Helios Airways were acquitted of manslaughter on Wednesday over the fatal air crash of August 2005, which cost the lives of 121 people.
In one of the most high-profile legal cases in Cyprus legal history which lasted over two years, a majority decision by a three-judge bench ruled that the defendants had no prima facie case to answer.
In order to avert the dismissal of the case, the state prosecutor had to prove two charges: first, that the accident was caused by mistakes or omissions made by German Captain Hans-Jurgen Merten and his co-pilot Pambos Charalambous and that they were unfit to fly, and second, that Helios knew or should have known this.
The defendants were Helios chief executive Andreas Drakos, managing director Demetris Pantazis, operations manager George Kikides, chief pilot Ianko Stoimenov and Helios Airways itself as a legal entity.
Helios and the four executives had pleaded not guilty to 1,190 counts - 238 each - of manslaughter and reckless endangerment through negligence for the death of 119 of those on board - excluding the two pilots who were deemed partly responsible for the accident.
The ZU55 flight air crash is regarded as the deadliest aviation disaster for both Greece and Cyprus.
“The lack of any causal association between the defendants and the negligence they were charged with for the fatal accident completely disconnects the defendants with the accident,” said the court verdict.
The concluding remarks of the verdict were met by jeers and anguish from the victims’ relatives, who had flocked the court room. Even so, the collapse of the case had been widely predicted.
“It was common knowledge that proceedings were weak due to the phrasing of the charges,” said Nicolas Yiasasmis, president of the Relatives’ Committee speaking after the verdict.
The two-to-one verdict said that the prosecution had failed to clarify the specific period in which the competence of the two pilots should have been evaluated and had failed to substantiate both charges against the defendants.
Senior District Judge Nicholas Santis, while he had voted against the acquittal, said that the prosecution had failed to explicitly define “competence” and present additional expert witnesses apart from a human factor expert.
Court chairman Haris Solomonides reiterated several times during the reading of the verdict that the actions of the pilots during the fateful flight were not taken into account since that could not be directly linked to the charges faced by the defendants.
The judges in their verdicts mentioned the extensive attention the prosecution had given to the fact that the defendants did not seek to acquire references of prior employment from Merten, despite him being laid-off by his previous employer Jet2 for not performing his duties properly and despite several written complaints by co-pilots while flying for Helios Airways.
The court decided, however, that the possibility of contradictory references from Merten’s different previous employers disconnected the defendants from any charge of negligence.
The court verdict concluded that the case had lead to “a dead-end for any procedure of identifying the competence of Merten” and clarified that official evaluation forms and checks had revealed the German pilot’s competence as “satisfactory”.
Similar official evaluations had branded co-pilot Pambos Charalambous as competent in his position as co-pilot, despite testimonies expressing concerns over his psychological capabilities to handle stress and doubts over his potential of becoming a pilot in the future.
With respect to negligence and the responsible agent status of the company, the court verdict concluded that the company’s officials responsible for employment, licensing and evaluation of pilots were operations manager Kikides and chief pilot Stoimenov.
“Even if the components of the charges were proven, defendants one and three (Helios chief executive Andreas Drakos and managing director Demetris Pantazis) would still have been acquitted since they are not regarded as the responsible agent with regard to the charges in question,” the verdict said.
Attorney general, Petros Clerides, announced after the verdict that the state prosecutor would evaluate all the facts and consider an appeal, while several members of the victims’ families voiced their disapproval of what they consider to be a “poor handling of the case by the state prosecutor”.
The trial at the criminal court got underway in November 2009, after families of the victims demanded retribution against those responsible for the crash of the Boeing 737-300 outside Athens on August 14, 2005.
All flight passengers were starved of oxygen due to problems in the cabin pressurisation, while the aircraft subsequently crashed into a hill after running out of fuel.
In their October 2006 report on the crash, Greek investigators cited human error as the main cause of the crash, saying the pilots had left cabin pressure controls at an incorrect setting.
However, the report also cited Boeing for “ineffectiveness of measures”, since the same alarm was used for two different problems, resulting in the pilots misinterpreting the information.
A report compiled by former judge Panayiotis Kallis, following an in-depth enquiry into the crash in 2006 was not publicised, much to the distress of many of the victims’ relatives who feel that the Kallis report is key to the case.
Relatives of the victims filed a €76 million lawsuit with Greek courts against aircraft manufacturer Boeing and Helios Airways in 2007, claiming compensation for emotional distress.
The case was settled out-of-court for an undisclosed fee.