Indonesian court jails Garuda pilot over air disaster

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A similar Garuda jet
Image: Terence Ong.

Captain Muhammad Marwoto Komar, the pilot who was controlling Garuda Indonesia Flight 200 when it crashed two years ago, has been jailed for two years. 21 people were killed when the Boeing 737 crashed at Adi Sucipto Airport in Yogyakarta.

The court ruled that Article 479G(b) of the Criminal Code had been breached by Komar — negligence resulting in death. The aircraft had crashed due to the excessive speed that it landed at, with prosecutors originally claiming the crash was deliberate while Komar blamed an issue with the flaps. The charge of intentionally crashing was later dropped.

The court found that as Komar had not notified co-pilot Gagam Salman R. or air traffic control of any issue with the aircraft despite having two minutes to do so he was negligent. Had the airport been aware of the problems on board, they could have readied Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting crews to prevent or contain the fire when the plane departed the runway. As the plane approached the runway the Ground Proximity Warning System sounded fifteen times to inform the flight crew the jet was going too fast for a safe landing.

He was sentenced to two years in prison, half the term prosecutors were seeking. Lead prosecutor Mudin Aristo said that "we're considering [appealing] the verdict." M. Assegaf, Komar's lawyer, has already said that he will appeal. "The case should not have been tried under that article [479G(b)], which is used to regulate terrorists. Captain Marwoto is not a terrorist", said Assegaf.

Garuda Pilots’ Association president Stephanus Gerardus and Napitupulu of the Federation of Indonesian Pilots both commented that the case should not have been in a criminal court at all but in an aviation court. Garardus commented that "Pilots will be afraid to land their planes because of the threat of imprisonment."

The judges, who were split in their verdict as one felt that all charges should be dismissed, ruled that the position of such a court was unclear and that it had no jurisdiction to hand down jail sentences. They also said that Law No. 1/2009 on profession courts, which applies to such a court, was not in place at the time of the accident.

Was the sentence fair?

Others felt that the sentence was too light. Then-Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer commented that "it seems a very light sentence frankly. I understand from the evidence that was presented that there was nothing mechanically wrong with the aircraft and that the pilot just landed the plane at far too high a speed, way over the limit of the landing of an aircraft." Five Australian diplomats and journalists travelling on flight 200 to attend a counter-terrorism conference that Downer appeared at in Indonesia were amongst the dead.

Caroline Mellish, sister of Australian journalist Morgan Mellish who died on the flight, also said the sentence was light. "I don't feel like justice has been served... And hearing he only got two years made it even harder," she said. Kevin Keevil, father of AusAID's Allison Sudradjat, who also died, had a similar opinion.

"It does not give me any peace of mind," said Keevil. "I have a personal belief that the sentence is inadequate given what transpired on the day, especially in view of the pilot's behaviour."

The verdict, which was attended by Komar's wife and teenage sons, garnered widespread public interest. For the four hours that proceedings lasted the courtroom was at capacity and many people were listening from outside.