Polish court orders arrest of Russian air traffic controller over Smolensk crash

A court in Poland has ordered the arrest of a Russian air traffic controller accused by Polish prosecutors of intentional actions that caused the plane crash at Smolensk in 2010 which killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński and 95 others.

The ruling, which was made on Tuesday and announced yesterday, paves the way for the issuing of an international arrest warrant. However, Russia has so far refused to cooperate with the Polish authorities over the case.

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Proceedings against two Russian air traffic controllers – named under Polish privacy law only as Colonel Pavel P. and Major Viktor R. – began in March 2015, when Polish prosecutors charged them with manslaughter resulting in the deaths of 96 people.

However, “further analysis of the evidence showed it was necessary to change the allegations into an intentional act”, Łukasz Łapczyński, spokesman for the National Prosecutor’s Office, told the Polish Press Agency (PAP) yesterday.

“Prosecutors believed that the suspects – by knowingly allowing the plane to descend and make a conditional trial approach to landing – had anticipated a catastrophe and consented to it,” added Łapczyński.

The charges were changed accordingly in April 2017 and additionally a further man – Lieutenant Nikolai K., who had been giving orders to the flight manager – was also charged.

Łapczyński said that the new charges stemmed from further analysis of recordings from the air traffic control tower at Smolensk and from the cockpit of the Polish Tupolev plane that had been carrying President Kaczyński, his wife Maria, and many other leading military and political figures, all of whom died in the crash.

Those charges could not be formally presented to the suspects, however, “because of the attitude of the Russian Federation”, which refused to respond to Polish requests to deliver summonses, claiming alleged threats to its national interest, said Łapczyński.

As a result, prosecutors applied to the district court in Warsaw for the arrest of the three suspects. In May last year, the motion regarding Pavel P. was initially rejected, but that decision was then changed on appeal, with the court ordering him to be detained for 30 days.

This week, the same court ruled that Viktor R. should also be detained for 30 days, but rejected the request to arrest Nikolai K. Prosecutors say they will appeal the latter decision.

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The Smolensk air disaster has become a deeply contested issue in Poland. The official Polish and Russian investigations found that pilot error was the main cause of the crash. But the Polish report also pointed to failings by Russian air traffic control.

However, both those investigations were rejected by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which was in opposition at the time of the crash but then came to power in 2015. PiS, which is led by Lech Kaczyński’s twin brother Jarosław, claims the official reports were part of a cover-up.

It has argued the crash was caused deliberately by Russia, insinuating variously that the Polish government of the time – led by Civic Platform (PO), now in opposition – was either complicit in that plan, aware of it, or at the least helped to subsequently cover it up.

After coming to power, PiS launched new investigations into the crash. However, in the almost seven years since, the government has failed to publish any conclusive evidence challenging the previous official reports.

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