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Justice from abroad
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 03 - 2002

Egypt, predictably, has dismissed a US report which blames an Egyptian co-pilot for the 1999 crash of EgyptAir flight 990 over the Atlantic. Anayat Durrani, in Washington and Amira Ibrahim, in Cairo, report
Egypt has officially rejected a US report on the cause of the crash of an Egyptian Boeing 767 over the Atlantic in 1999. The Egyptian government plans to appeal against the US conclusions. Moreover, EgyptAir accused American investigators of "jumping to conclusions," and released its own technical report on the crash.
The reaction comes after the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced on 21 March that, far from being the result of a mechanical failure, the crash was caused by 59-year- old Egyptian co-pilot Gamil El-Batouti. The report argues that El-Batouti deliberately crashed the plane, killing all 217 people on board.
In its final report, the NTSB said the crash was most probably caused by "the airplane's departure from normal cruise flight, and subsequent impact with the Atlantic Ocean, as a result of the relief first officer's flight control inputs." The report did not offer any explanation of El-Batouti's motives. The co-pilot passed a professional evaluation a few months before the crash.
EgyptAir had previously blamed the crash on a problem with the plane's tail.
Flight 990 took off from John F Kennedy International Airport in New York on 31 October 1999, bound for Cairo International Airport. A short time after take off, the Boeing 767 nose-dived 33,000 feet, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts. There were 14 crew-members and 203 passengers aboard.
Soon after the NTSB delivered its report to the Egyptian government, Minister of Civil Aviation Ahmed Shafiq summoned officials of aviation authorities, EgyptAir and the investigation team for an emergency meeting to discuss the report and prepare an Egyptian reply. A statement was issued rejecting the report and announcing the intention to appeal to the NTSB for reconsideration of the findings.
On Monday, EgyptAir released a technical report on the crash which it had prepared more than two years ago. The 225- page report contains evidence concerning probable mechanical malfunctions. The EgyptAir report also included an analysis of other areas that NTSB investigators "deliberately ignored," such as the state of confusion at the air-traffic control tower in New York, the testimony of a Jordanian pilot who said he saw a fire-ball some 50 metres in front of his plane in the same area where the Egyptian plane crashed, and the Egyptian demand for military radar images to be shown.
NTSB investigators recovered two flight recorders from the crash. Their investigation relied heavily on evidence pointing to El-Batouti as the one responsible for the crash. The recordings suggest that El-Batouti, who was alone in the cockpit, cut power to the engines, sent the plane into a nose-dive, and began calmly to repeat in Arabic "Tawakalt ala Allah" or "I rely on God" for nearly a minute and a half.
El-Batouti is heard saying the phrase a total of 11 times in a recording taken from the cockpit voice recorder. The report explains that when the pilot of the plane, Captain Ahmed El-Habashi, returned to the cockpit, he repeatedly asked his co-pilot, "What's happening?" El- Habashi, the NTSB report says, struggled to save the flight while El-Batouti resisted the captain's efforts to pull the plane out of the dive. The pilot's last words on the recording were, "Pull with me."
"The captain's actions were consistent with an attempt to recover the accident airplane and the relief first officer's were not," the American report said.
The NTSB report cites the co-pilot's calm repetition of the "I rely on God" phrase, and his failure to regain control of the plane or call for assistance, as "inconsistent with his having encountered an unexpected flight condition."
From the outset of investigations, Egypt has dismissed this theory, suggesting mechanical failure as the cause. "The evidence gathered in this investigation does not support the conclusion that the first officer deliberately crashed the aircraft into the ocean. To the contrary, the factual evidence indicates that elevator control malfunctions may have occurred causing the crash," said the statement released by Egypt's civil aviation authority.
"It is not acceptable to assert a conclusion as to probable cause based on the supposed absence of evidence of mechanical failure. The families of the Flight 990 victims and the international aviation community deserve more; they deserve candor, objectivity and honesty," the Egyptian statement said.
The word "suicide" is not mentioned in the NTSB report. There has long been speculation, however, that El-Batouti committed suicide because of the phrase he used in those fatal last moments as the plane plummeted toward the ocean.
The phrase used by Batouti is one repeated frequently by Egyptians. In the statement released by Egypt's civil aviation authority, the remark is explained as "a common, every day, Muslim statement used by Egyptian Muslims and Christians throughout their day-to-day activities, and particularly when they are seeking God's support. It would not be used in conjunction with a suicidal or criminal act."
Egyptian officials and the general public have consistently rejected the theory that El-Batouti deliberately crashed the plane, as has the El-Batouti family. The suggestion that it was suicide that caused the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 has failed to convince Egyptians and much of the Arab world. In Islam, suicide is a major sin, and one would not utter, "I rely on God" before taking one's own life.
The case for suicide as the cause of the crash becomes even more difficult to fathom when it is considered that El- Batouti left behind a sick daughter, currently being treated for lupus in Los Angeles, and would miss his son's upcoming wedding. Moreover, there is a widely-held perception that the US is biased in this case, particularly in light of its stance toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and future plans to expand the war on terrorism to Iraq.
On Sunday, EgyptAir held a press conference in which it announced the plan to file a petition for reconsideration with the NTSB. Captain Mohsen El-Missiry, head of the investigation team, came under heavy fire from the Egyptian media. Several reporters expressed anger that the investigation was handed over to an American authority.
"The US took the investigation over for many reasons. In addition to the fact that the plane was of American manufacture, the accident took place near the American coast and about 100 Americans were among the victims. It is agreed by all international bodies concerned with aviation accidents that the NTSB is among the best bodies to conduct such investigations... We want it to be clear that the NTSB had been paid for its services, and thus we do not have to accept their conclusions," El-Missiry said at the press conference.
He also said he had been in contact with other international bodies to replace the Americans and conduct the investigation again, but had failed due to what seemed to be "exchanged interests" between the US and those international bodies. He did not specify which bodies he had approached.
"We hired four international aviation experts from the International Civil Aviation Organisation [ICAO] who analysed the crash data and made a report which reached the same conclusions we reached," he said.
When asked if the Egyptian investigators had excluded the possibility of sabotage or a missile attack, El- Missiry replied: "We should not respond to the unethical attitude of the American media in a similar way, and rush to a judgment without evidence. We have not excluded any theory, except that of a suicidal pilot, which the final report itself excluded. All other possibilities are, from our point of view, open."
El-Missiry told the press that analysis of radar images had showed three other flying bodies interrupting the Egyptian plane's course, but that US authorities had refused to disclose military radar images, claiming that doing so would involve revealing top military secrets. "We faced several difficulties when handling the probe. Even the testimony of the Jordanian pilot -- we only got it six months after the accident, in April 2000. We have never been able to contact the pilot himself," he said.
Nevertheless Shaker Qilada, head of the investigation team for EgyptAir, denied that the national carrier was considering the cancellation of further aircraft purchases from Boeing. "Those deals were made a long time before the EgyptAir 990 crash. We have not bought any 767 planes since, and we finally sold off the last 767 we had in our fleet. We are not willing to boycott Boeing, however," he said.
Qilada indicated that Boeing had reacted positively to the Egyptian statement, despite being warned against cooperating with EgyptAir by the NTSB. According to Qilada, the final report does not place any legal liabilities on the national carrier. "EgyptAir has paid all accident insurance instalments according to international insurance law. The families of all 217 victims received their insurance pay-outs. Since the company is not being blamed for drastic negligence, we are not committed to paying any compensation."
Qilada's statement seems to be backed up by the families of the victims. The families of 18 Egyptian victims who originally filed lawsuits against Boeing and EgyptAir with Egyptian courts have done an about-turn, deciding instead to sue the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority Chairman for handing the investigation to an American authority -- a decision which, they claim, impaired their rights.
"We seek to push the Egyptian government not only to appeal to the NTSB, but to take the investigation to the American courts. We believe the American judicial system to be more independent than the NTSB," Atef El-Nigmi, lawyer for some of the victims' families, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"In addition, lawyers can now move freely to get all the information they need to defend the interests of their clients. Information was not allowed through the NTSB, not even to the Egyptian investigators," he added.
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