NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Four former airline officials were acquitted Wednesday of manslaughter and other charges in the unusual crash of a Cypriot airliner six years ago that killed 121 passengers, while victims' relatives jeered the ruling inside a packed courtroom in the island's capital of Nicosia.
In a majority decision, a panel of three judges ruled there was no evidence presented during the two-year trial that the defendants were linked to what caused the crash. The prosecution had argued that the defendants failed to prevent the aircraft from being flown by "unsuitable and inadequate" pilots.
The judges also ruled that the prosecution failed to prove that German pilot Hans-Juergen Merten and his Cypriot co-pilot Charalambos Charalambous didn't meet the minimum standards required to do their job.
"Regardless...how the charges are viewed, they remain groundless and without supporting evidence," the judges said in their 170-page decision. "It's judged that this reason is sufficient to dismiss all charges and acquit all defendants."
The Aug. 14, 2005, crash of the Helios Airways Boeing 737-300 aircraft on a hillside north of Athens killed everyone on board and sent shockwaves through this small east Mediterranean island of 800,000 people.
The plane had been on a flight from Cyprus' main airport of Larnaca to Prague, Czech Republic via Athens.
Greek investigators have said human error was to blame for the crash, which piqued international curiosity about the peculiar circumstances under which it unfolded. Investigators established that cabin pressure failure knocked out the pilots soon after takeoff from Larnaca airport.
The aircraft reached Athens on autopilot, but crashed after running out of fuel. A Greek fighter pilot scrambled to intercept the unresponsive jet reported seeing a man who managed to stay conscious enter the flight deck and try to pilot the plane, but to no avail.
The judges referred to testimony suggesting that despite a sound alarm, the pilots had apparently failed to notice and adjust — either before or after takeoff — a switch that would have automatically pressurized the cabin during the flight.
An autopsy showed that all the passengers were alive at the time of impact, but were in a deep comatose state because of the prolonged lack of oxygen, the court said.
The defendants included former managing director of Helios Airways Demetris Pantazis, the airline's former chief executive Andreas Drakos, chief pilot Ianko Stoimenov, operations director George Kikides and the defunct airline as a legal entity.
The manslaughter charge carried a maximum life sentence. The defendants also had faced a lesser charge of causing death by recklessness.
The ruling angered victims' relatives inside the stuffy courtroom. Some shouted "killers," and "is this justice?" as bailiffs spirited the defendants outside after the dissenting judge finished reading his opinion.
Outside the courthouse, relatives dressed in black clutched photographs of victims and wept, while others heaped abuse on lawyers exiting the building whom they thought had represented the defendants.
"Where should I go now, should I go to the cemetery again?" asked Maro Makridou, whose daughter, son-in-law and three children perished in the crash.
Cyprus Attorney General Petros Clerides told state-run Cyprus News Agency that he would consider appealing the ruling after studying it.