The president of Kyrgyzstan has approved the formation of public commission to investigate the circumstances around a cargo plane crash in 2017 that claimed the lives of 39 people and destroyed dozens of homes.
Many believe that a full account of how the accident came to pass has never been provided and that previous governments have sought to cover up many details.
The crash of the Boeing 747-400F, which was operated by Turkish-based ATC Airlines, occurred as the plane attempted to land amid intense fog in the early hours of January 16. The fatalities included four crew members, all of them Turkish nationals, and 35 residents of the Dacha-SU complex, which lies adjacent to Bishkek’s Manas International Airport.
“Five years after the tragedy at Dacha-SU, questions are still being asked by the public about who was really to blame for the plane crash, who owned the cargo, and how the money collected to help the victims was distributed,” President Sadyr Japarov said in a May 10 decree approving the setting up of the public commission.
Earlier investigations have yielded little clarity. In 2017, transportation investigators opened a criminal case into safety rules violations, but they later shelved the case. The General Prosecutor’s Office began its own investigation in 2019, partly into allegations that looters had stolen items from among the debris, but it has to date failed to provide even a preliminary summary of its findings.
Japarov says he believes the investigation is being conducted “badly and slowly.”
“There is information that the current investigators are the same ones that did the investigation last time and that they could hide many things. For that reason I have decided to create a public commission,” he wrote on Facebook on May 8, a few days before signing a decree on the move.
Rather than attempt a shake-up of personnel among the ranks of prosecutors, which is the branch of government that leads such investigations, Japarov has opted to turn the probe over to the public.
The 18-person commission will be comprised of lawyers, investigative journalists, activists, human rights activists and other figures from civil society. It will be required to produce results by November 1. Their mandate is to indicate the possible causes and circumstances leading up to the disaster, as well as to make proposals on how to address the outstanding difficulties being experienced by surviving Dacha-SU residents. Fully 26 homes were destroyed in the crash, which caused damage estimated at almost $3 million.
One commission appointee, lawyer and human rights activist Nurbek Toktakunov, said he joined the initiative at the invitation of the president’s office.
“This was a horrifying episode and there is a lot of public uncertainty over this case. It caused a major sensation and many circumstances have been hidden from the public,” said Toktakunov. “The creation of a commission is fully justified.”
One major question surrounds the matter of what the ATC Airlines aircraft was doing in Bishkek in the first place. Officials said it was attempting to land at Manas for refueling, but the company denied that this was the case and said that it was dropping off goods. People who say they were involved in sorting through the debris appeared to lend some weight to this contention with their claim to have found items labelled in Kyrgyz. It is not known for certain, in fact, to whom the cargo ultimately belonged.
Another point of controversy is to do with compensation. ATC Airlines at the time reportedly paid out 42 million som (around $608,000) in compensation to the families of the victims. Another 102 million som was gathered in a crowd-funding initiative. The government has never provided a full accounting of how this money was distributed, however. Also, authorities have always insisted that resettling displaced Dacha-SU homeowners was a priority, but that matter too remains unresolved.
The Interstate Aviation Committee, or IAC, a civil aviation body that oversees the sector across parts of the former Soviet Union, stated in findings published in 2020 that human error was largely to blame for the accident itself.
There is a political dimension to this story. The crash happened when President Almazbek Atambayev was in power. His single permitted term ended in November 2017. Some have whispered that Atambayev, who is now in prison on charges connected to an unrelated issue, was uninterested in pursuing a vigorous investigation into the Dacha-SU tragedy out of concern of what it might reveal. The purpose of the commission is evidently designed in part to address that kind of speculation.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.