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Mon, Nov 20, 2000 - Page 2 News List

Critics deride criminal probe of flight SQ006

Aviation experts say attempts to bring charges of criminal negligence against the three pilots of the doomed flight would hurt safety in the long run

By Chuang Chi-ting  /  STAFF REPORTER

Singapore Airlines flight SQ006 hit construction equipment and crashed during takeoff on the night of Oct. 31, after the plane mistakenly entered a runway closed for repairs. The accident claimed 82 lives.

TAIPEI TIMES FILE PHOTO

Efforts by local prosecutors to bring charges of criminal negligence against the pilots of Singapore Airlines flight SQ006 may strain Taiwan's diplomatic and economic ties with the international community.

Aviation experts say it goes against international practice to hold responsible the three pilots of the doomed flight, in which 82 people lost their lives. International pilots' associations have also raised concerns over inquiries into whether the pilots should be held criminally liable.

Still, the Ministry of Justice says prosecutors have the right to probe the cause of the Oct. 31 crash alongside the Aviation Safety Council, which is interested in preventing future accidents.

The ministry arrived at that conclusion recently after consulting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Transportation and Communications.

Investigation should be left to the experts

But officials from the Aviation Safety Council and National Transportation Safety Board of the US say it is better to leave the questions to the aviation experts. Throughout the world, they say, uncovering the cause of plane accidents is best done by aviation professionals.

"Unless there is a potential crime -- such as the implantation of a bomb -- prosecutors won't interfere in the investigation conducted by professionals," said Ron Schleed, a former senior investigator at the US National Transportation Safety Board.

But local prosecutors say they are examining whether charges of criminal negligence should be brought in the SQ006 case.

Pilots of the ill-fated 747-400 attempted to take off from a CKS airport runway partially closed for repairs, barrelling into construction equipment.

The plane broke into three pieces and exploded.

"Our criminal law suggests that we should be there when death is involved in a case," the prosecutors said.

A question of jurisdiction

Ministry of Justice officials also argue that Taiwan has jurisdiction over how the investigation into the plane crash proceeds, not anyone else.

That closely echoes statements from Taoyuan prosecutors, who said Taiwan's "criminal law should be applied to the case since the accident happened here in a sovereign state. It is humiliating to the nation and inimical to its sovereignty not to handle this case in accordance with our law."

Meanwhile, the three pilots of the flight -- Malaysian captain Foong Chee Kong, and Singaporean co-pilots Latiff Cyrano and Ng Kheng Leng -- have been barred by prosecutors from leaving the country, arousing complaints from several pilots' associations.

Prevention, not prosecution

In any case, many aviation safety experts have warned that threatening to bring criminal charges against the pilots would hinder the flow of information about the crash.

That would make it difficult to prevent future air traffic accidents, they say, and it undermines the goal of carrying out investigations in the first place.

"It is very unfortunate," Schleed said, after learning that the Ministry of Justice planned to allow prosecutors' probes to go forward.

While the ministry says the inquiry is to determine whether "criminal liability" should be assigned to the pilots, Schleed said the case is a matter of human error and the pilots had no criminal intent.

Furthermore, Schleed said, introducing the threat of criminal charges would pose a threat to the safety of the world's aviation system.

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