Friday, May 29, 2009

A Chronicle Of Incompetence....The Yak-42

On the 26th May 2003 a Yakovlev Yak-42 plane carrying 62 Spanish soldiers crashed near the Turkish city of Trabzon. All of the soldiers, who were returning from a mission in Afghanistan, as well as all of the crew died in the accident. The dead soldiers were of course given a solemn state funeral just two days after the accident in the presence of the King of Spain and the prime minister at the time, José Maria Aznar. Much was said about the sacrifice they had made in serving their country.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident much of the attention was focused on the lamentable condition of the plane used to fly these soldiers home, and the nature of the contracts which were signed for transport of troops on missions overseas. Worse was to come, much worse. Months after the accident it was revealed that almost half of those who died were wrongly identified, and that the remains handed over to many of the families of the victims were not those of their loved ones. Some of these families subsequently began a long and difficult campaign to find out what had really happened in the immediate aftermath of the accident.

The campaign was not welcomed, either by the politicians or by the higher echelons of the military. The judges weren't much help either, as the earliest attempts to take the issue through the courts were brushed aside. The arrogance of the response by the authorities only added to the tremendous hurt already felt by those who sought the truth about what had happened. A chain of evasion of responsibility began, starting with the then Minister of Defence, Federico Trillo, who blamed subordinates for the errors. Those subordinates in turn blamed the Turks, there wasn't much concept of military valour in the responses received by the families. Eventually the pressure of the campaign led to the bodies being exhumed and correctly identified, and to the courts finally getting involved.

It emerged that senior military officers sent to organise the recovery of the victims had signed a document in Turkey acknowledging that 30 bodies had not been correctly identified. Only after the judge Grande-Marlaska had been ordered by a higher court to carry out a proper investigation was the path cleared for at least some of those responsible for the handling of the issue to face legal consequences. The officers responsible for organising the return of the bodies were charged with falsifying documentation as none of the formal requirements for repatriation of the dead had been correctly followed.

The trial finished last week and three of those accused were found guilty. The trial itself became a battleground over the attempts to get to the bottom of just why the officers involved were in such a hurry to repatriate the victims of the crash. Despite a widespread suspicion that political pressure was on to hold a quick funeral, the trial judge rejected all attempts to get the politicians involved to give their account. Neither did he seem willing to permit evidence from the Turkish pathologists, only after the families of the victims arranged for these witnesses to travel to Spain did he finally give way. The Turkish evidence was crucial to the case.

There are still unanswered questions about this case, many of them concerning the political responsibilities. Federico Trillo continues to occupy a senior position in the Partido Popular, despite his disgraceful handling of the issue. The man who was happy for anyone except himself to get the blame was quoted after the trial as saying how sorry he was to see his subordinates convicted. The politicans, the military and much of the judicial system would happily have buried this uncomfortable case. It is a tribute to the determination of the families, treated so contemptuously by the accused and their political masters, that we now know as much as we do.

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