AG to appeal Helios ruling

By Elias Hazou Published on December 23, 2011
Attorney General Petros Clerides

THE Attorney-general’s office yesterday said it will appeal the decision by Nicosia Criminal Court earlier this week to dismiss all charges against the defendants in the Helios trial.

At the same time, and under pressure from the relatives of the air crash victims, an independent report into the causes of the incident was yesterday made public domain after being kept under lock and key for years.

On Wednesday the Criminal Court ruled there was no prima facie evidence to justify the charges of manslaughter and reckless endangerment against the defendants (four individuals plus now-defunct Helios Airways) on the grounds they had employed “unsuitable and inadequate” pilots.

The decision drew the wrath of the victim’s relatives, who accused the state prosecution (Attorney-general’s office) of bungling the case.

The state’s case rested on the premise that German Captain Hans-Jurgen Merten and co-pilot Pambos Charalambous were unfit to fly, that Helios knew or should have known this, and that therefore the airline and its officers bore responsibility for the accident in August 2005, which saw a Helios plane crash outside Athens killing all 121 people on board.

But in a majority decision by a three-judge bench, the court said from the evidence presented the two aviators’ competence was “satisfactory”. The captain and the co-pilot had all the necessary certificates and passed all the tests they were obliged to take.

In its verdict, the court said the prosecution failed to establish “any causal association between the defendants and the negligence they were charged with for the fatal accident” and that this “completely disconnects the defendants with the accident”.

Facing an angry reaction from the victims’ kin, Attorney-general Petros Clerides called a news conference yesterday to defend the state’s handling of the case but also to announce that an appeal was in the works.

“I feel completely satisfied and at peace with my conscience,” Clerides said.

He said his office and the senior state prosecutors had done an “excellent job” with regard both to preparing the case and the gathering and presentation of evidence in the courtroom.

The state had spared no means or expense in prosecuting the case, for example in sending officials abroad to interview dozens of witnesses and aviation experts as well as arranging for in-court teleconferencing sessions with Boeing officers in Seattle.

Having studied the Criminal Court’s verdict, Clerides said, it was his opinion and that of his colleagues that an “appeal is justified”.

Pressed for details on the nature of the appeal, the AG said only that it would not include fresh evidence, as this is prohibited by law.

He explained also that, in the event the appeal is successful, it would lead to a re-trial from scratch and not to a conviction. This was because the case had been dismissed on a prima facie basis.

“I continue to hold the view that this is a difficult case,” he commented.

While Clerides was giving the news conference, outraged relatives of the Helios victims gathered outside shouting abuse at him and demanding he quit.

In a standoff with the relatives, an evidently irritated Clerides challenged them to name who they themselves believe to be the guilty parties for the tragedy.

Asked who he thought was responsible for the air crash, at one point Clerides remarked: “Certainly not I”.

Responding to repeated calls for the release of an independent report into the accident, Clerides pledged to hand it over to them today.

“Be here today at the same time,” he told the relatives.

The report’s findings, compiled by former judge Panayiotis Kallis, were the outcome of an in-depth enquiry into the crash. It was completed in 2006, but was never published. The victims’ relatives had long called for its release.

Again defending his handling of the case, Clerides said the Kallis report names the same persons who were prosecuted by the AG’s office.

But he declined to commit to a fully public disclosure of the report, adding however that this was something he would “consider”.

Hours later, however, the report was widely released to the media by the government’s Press and Information Office – leading to speculation that the orders came straight from the Presidential Palace.

Earlier in the day, President Christofias was asked whether he objected to the report’s release. The President presides over the Cabinet, under whose care the report was placed.

“Why would I have a problem with that?” was his response.

The criminal aspect aside, it is understood the majority of the victims’ relatives have received compensation for their loss in out-of-court settlements.

Following the accident, some of the relatives sought to sue Boeing in the United States. The United States Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit ruled that US courts lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.

But out-of-court deals were subsequently struck with Boeing (manufacturers of the crashed Helios jet), Helios Airways and a number of other companies in the aviation business represented by Gates and Partners, an international law firm based in London and specialising in aviation and commercial law.

An independent air crash investigation by a Greek expert named human error as the primary reason for the accident, but also cited Boeing for design flaws aboard the jet since the same warning sound was used for two different problems, causing the pilots to incorrectly troubleshoot the loss of cabin pressure.