Apologize for Yak air crash, Spain’s ex-defense chief urges government

Socialist politician José Bono says “junk planes” were contracted due to expense of Iraq war

José Bono was Spain’s defense minister from 2004 to 2006, under the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. His first official meeting after taking over from his predecessor Federico Trillo, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), was with the relatives of the 62 members of Spain’s armed services who were killed when the military aircraft bringing them home from Afghanistan crashed into a mountainside near the Turkish city of Trabzon, on May 26, 2003.

José Bono, former defense minister of Spain.
José Bono, former defense minister of Spain.ULY MARTÍN

The incident has dogged Spain’s ruling PP for over a decade, with initial controversy over the misidentification of bodies giving way to concerns over the manner in which planes were contracted. The investigation also showed that the Defense Ministry had not taken out required insurance premiums for the troops headed home.

In 2012, the PP government pardoned the only two military officials who had been convicted for misidentifying the bodies of half of the dead soldiers. In 2013, Spain’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal by family members to reopen an investigation into the accident. But last week, in what constitutes a major moral victory for the families, Spain’s Council of State officially admitted for the first time to the Defense Ministry’s responsibility in the crash.

Rajoy can break with one of the worst tendencies inherited from the old PP: arrogance

José Bono, former defense minister

Shortly after this advisory body handed down its report, the Spanish government said the defense minister at the time of the crash, Federico Trillo, would be relieved of his role as Spain’s ambassador to the UK. However, the government denied any link between the move and the release of the Council of State report.

EL PAÍS spoke to José Bono about the latest developments in the Yak-42 case.

Question. What do you think of Prime Minister Rajoy’s reaction to the report, saying that “this happened years and years ago?”

Answer. I am hopeful that he will admit that things were done badly and with knowledge of the facts: that there were corrupt individuals who siphoned off money from successive aircraft contracts and from the unpaid insurance premiums. Although wrongdoing cannot be retrospectively repaired – the dead cannot be brought back to life and moral damage cannot be totally repaired – the truth can be told to the people of Spain, both as an act of patriotism and as a form of moral redress for the victims.

They must admit that they ignored the soldiers’ complaints; that these days they would no longer grant government pardons to the individuals who were convicted in connection with the case, and that if they did so, it was not out of clemency but out of fear that they would talk and say who it was that ordered them to repatriate the bodies so quickly and under false pretenses.

Reopening the case

Representatives of the victims’ relatives are meeting with Defense Minister Dolores de Cospedal on Tuesday, and will ask her to reopen the investigation into the chain of aircraft contracts.

“We still don’t know where the money went. If it were possible to prove negligence in the contracting, the criminal case could be reopened,” said Curra Ripollés, sister of one of the victims.

“What Rajoy refers to as ‘that thing that happened many years ago’ in fact represents 62 dead military men, and asking for forgiveness would be a huge gesture on their part, but we also need an investigation, for the whole truth to come out, and for justice to be done. For our families and for everyone.”

Q. It is still unclear where the money went in that subcontracting chain. Did the Trillo ministry conceal information from you?

A. They hired junk planes, not because the military chiefs of staff were evil, but because of a limited budget, as evidenced by an official document that has been kept from the public opinion until now. This document states that “with the accumulated expenses to date (Prestige oil spill, Iraq crisis), it was only possible to hire two aircraft a month.” This made it necessary to prioritize flights. Authorization had to be requested for specific flights, when these arrived they left very little reaction time, and everything was indisputably influenced by the political sensibility concerning the Iraq conflict. If anybody denies these facts, I will produce the document.

The information that Trillo gave me was irrelevant; he was chiefly interested in ending this matter soon. We learned about the subcontracting because I personally showed up at the headquarters of the Defense Staff. We had to force open a filing cabinet that they would not give me the key to. The chief of staff sent a commander abroad to seek information. The aircraft owner, Um-Air, refused to hand over the contract and only gave us the first and last pages. We received other documents with the amounts blacked out.

We finally concluded that the government had paid €149,000 and that Um-Air had earned €38,000. That is to say that €111,000 evaporated along the way. It remains to be seen who kept that money, and also the insurance money, because Spain was obliged to take it out for each and every soldier, yet when the accident happened we found out that they were uninsured. The families want justice and truth – the money was already taken by others.

Q. Do you think that the government and the PP are afraid of Trillo?

A. Baltasar Garzón suggested as much in his column for EL PAÍS. But I would rather trust that Rajoy will resolutely show that his morals will not tolerate the old lies. He can break with one of the worst tendencies inherited from the old PP: arrogance. If Rajoy sent Trillo packing, he would be doing Spain a service, and it would be the best way to illustrate that falsehood and arrogance should never have been rewarded in the first place. They should admit that they were hiring junk planes, even though Trillo said they were “excellent.”

Q. Were you surprised at the fact that the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s High Court, closed the case regarding the subcontracting?

A. Yes, and I was hurt by it.

Q. How do you explain that decision?

A. I cannot think of a good explanation.

English version by George Mills and Susana Urra.


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