NICOSIA, Cyprus — Cyprus' Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered a new trial for four former airline officials who had been acquitted of manslaughter and other charges for a 2005 plane crash that killed 121 passengers and crew members. The Helios Airways crash drew international attention because of the unusual circumstances surrounding it.
Greek investigators have blamed the accident on human error after inadequate cabin pressure knocked out everyone aboard, including the two pilots, after takeoff from Cyprus' main airport of Larnaca. The aircraft – on its way to the Czech Republic – reached Athens on autopilot and crashed there after running out of fuel.
Six of the Supreme Court's nine judges upheld Attorney General Petros Clerides' appeal of the acquittal, saying the lower Cyprus court was mistaken in its "selective and piecemeal" evaluation of the evidence and calling its reasoning that there was nothing linking the defendants to the crash "fundamentally flawed."
In a majority decision in December 2011, the three-judge criminal court acquitted the four former Helios Airways officials: managing director Demetris Pantazis, chief executive Andreas Drakos, chief pilot Ianko Stoimenov and operations director George Kikides. Prosecutors had argued the defendants failed to prevent the Helios Airways Boeing 737-300 from being flown by "unsuitable and inadequate" pilots.
The Supreme Court ruled that verdict didn't sufficiently take into account expert testimony questioning the pilots' abilities and erred in concluding that the defendants bore no responsibility for what happened before the day when the aircraft crashed. The judges also said the lower court was wrong to say the defendants can't be held criminally liable for how the airline operated overall.
The lower court found the four defendants innocent of manslaughter, which carries a maximum life sentence in Cyprus, and causing death by recklessness.
In April, after another trial regarding the Helios Airways crash, a Greek court convicted Pantazis, Stoimenov and Kikides of negligent manslaughter, sentenced them to 10-year prison terms, and fined each of them (EURO)10,000 ($12,993). That verdict is now being appealed.
Relatives of the plane crash victims welcomed Tuesday's ruling in Cyprus, which did not set a date for the new trial. "We didn't believe that no one could be blamed" for the crash, said the president of the relatives' association, Nicholas Yiasoumis.
Testimony at the lower court trial suggested that the pilots of the Aug. 14, 2005 flight apparently failed to notice and adjust a switch that would automatically have pressurized the interior of the plane while it was flying.
A Greek fighter pilot who scrambled to try to intercept the unresponsive jet reported seeing a man who somehow managed to stay conscious enter the flight deck shortly before the crash and try to fly the plane. Autopsies indicated that all the passengers were alive at the time of the crash, but were in a deep comatose state because of the prolonged lack of oxygen.
Helios Airways went out of business about a year after the crash.