Indonesian court overturns Garuda pilot's conviction over air disaster

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Indonesia's High Court in Yogyakarta has overturned the April conviction of a Garuda Indonesia pilot who was behind the controls in an air disaster. Captain Marwoto Komar was cleared of negligently causing the deaths of 21 when his Boeing 737 overshot the runway at Adisucipto Airport.

The March 2007 crash occurred after the flight from Jakarta landed at excessive speed and a steep angle. The jet bounced down the runway before overshooting and coming to rest in a rice field, where it was destroyed by fire. Of the 140 on board, sixteen Indonesians and five Australians were killed.

A similar Garuda Indonesia jet
Image: Terence Ong.

The court in Komar's trial had ruled that while it could not be shown for sure that the aircraft was mechanically sound with the Captain solely responsible for the dangerous landing, Komar had two minutes in which to inform air traffic control and his co-pilot Gagam Salman R. that they were experiencing an emergency. The court found that had he done so Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting equipment could have been mobilised ready for the incoming jet. The investigation by the National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) found no mechanical defect and stated that fifteen activations of the Ground proximity warning system had been ignored, but international law made this inadmissible as evidence.

This shows that the justice system has finally understood that Marwoto’s case did not belong in court

—Indonesian Pilots Association chief

The ruling was overturned in September, but has only just been published. The High Court ruled that the prosecution had failed to "legally and convincingly" demonstrate guilt and therefore "the defendant's rights, position and status should be restored." Komar received half of the four year sentence sought by prosecutors but avoided jail as he was freed on bail while the appeal was pending. Komar's lawyer Mochtar Zuhdi said the High Court decision was final and cannot be appealed.

Should full and frank disclosure for long-term air safety take priority over prosecutions?

The decision to charge Captain Komar was highly controversial; the first time Indonesia prosecuted a pilot over a crash. Indonesia Air Traffic Controllers Association chief Adrie Gunawan said that 26 controllers left the country fearing possible prosecutions if anything went wrong on their shift; they also threatened to strike. Indonesian Pilots' Association chief Manotar Napitupulu said "This shows that the justice system has finally understood that Marwoto’s case did not belong in court." Last year Wikinews interviewed Paul McCarthy, an aviation lawyer and pilot who serves as the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations' representative to the International Civil Aviation Organisation. McCarthy said that prosecuting the man could have a chilling effect on people speaking to accident investigators, hence affecting safety. He also heavily criticised the investigation.

Not everyone is pleased by the decision. Victims' families in Australia are upset and angry at the decision. The Sydney Morning Herald used a headline that stated "Ruling denies justice for Australian crash victims". "The fact he has had his conviction quashed and pilot status reinstated, it's like nothing's happened," said Caroline Mellish, whose brother Morgan was killed. Simone Kerr, who lost her sister in the disaster, said "My greatest fear is that he will be flying again. He needs to be held accountable for his actions... There is no justice in this world."