Helios families rage at trial adjournment

NICOSIA (Combined reports) – A Cyprus court on Thursday adjourned a trial over the island’s worst air disaster, the 2005 crash in Greece of a Cypriot charter plane that killed all 121 people on board. Budget airline Helios Airways and four officials face charges of manslaughter and reckless endangerment in what promises to be one of the most complex and high-profile cases in Cypriot legal history. The five accused are 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. The Greek investigation faulted Helios for allegedly failing to fully adhere to air-safety regulations. Manslaughter carries a maximum life sentence, while the lesser charge carries a maximum four-year sentence. However, a hearing in a Nicosia court was adjourned to April 30 because of the absence of Kikides, who is abroad receiving hospital treatment for cancer. Each of the three defendants in court were freed on bail of 75,000 euros. Families of the dead have long called for criminal action against those deemed responsible when the Helios Airways Boeing 737-300 ran out of oxygen and slammed into a hillside outside Athens in August 2005. More than 60 relatives staged a silent protest outside the courthouse before the hearing began but the situation turned nasty after they spotted one of the accused attempting to leave in an unmarked police escort vehicle. A crowd surrounded the vehicle carrying Pantazis and vented its anger at the former Helios official, some trying to hit him with framed photographs of their loved ones. Pantazis was unhurt, and plainclothes officers shoved away relatives blocking the vehicle’s departure, banging on its doors and windows with their fists. «I don’t want (the defendants) to die; I want them to lose (loved ones) to see how it feels like,» Chrysoulla Koutsofta said earlier as she waited for the defendants to emerge from the Nicosia District Courthouse. Koutsofta, who lost her 28-year-old son Odysseas, his wife and their 5-year-old daughter, had joined other relatives outside the courthouse holding photos of their lost loved ones. «Is this justice?» Anna Onisiforou told The Associated Press, clutching a photo of her daughter and her daughter’s husband. «Let them come out to speak, at least to apologize.» The crash was the worst-ever air disaster for both Cyprus and Greece. The case comes after more than three years of police investigation amid criticism leveled by relatives of the dead of official foot-dragging. Relatives are already taking separate civil action, claiming damages from the state, arguing that the civil aviation authority was at fault because alleged negligence by its officials led to the crash. In October 2006, a Greek commission of inquiry said the Helios pilots had failed to recognize early warnings of a drop in cabin pressure and had omitted to switch pressurization from manual to automatic in preflight checks. Helios has strongly denied any suggestion that it cut corners in air safety, saying all its pilots were fit to fly and subject to the appropriate checks. The main charge is manslaughter, which carries a life sentence, as well as causing death by a reckless, thoughtless or dangerous act, which carries a maximum four-year term. Helios was later renamed Ajet Aviation, which ceased flight operations in late 2006. (AP, AFP)

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