Paris and Cairo.
Five months after EgyptAir flight MS804 crashed, Egypt hasn’t released the bodies of passengers, prompting speculations as to why the delay.
Just days before he was scheduled to arrive in Paris, Prosecutor General Nabil Sadek’s visit was canceled, two French sources told Mada Masr. Sadek was due to arrive on October 21 to discuss the frozen assets of former President Hosni Mubarak. He was also, according to a story published by the French newspaper Le Figaro on Tuesday, expected to mention the repatriation of the remains of the victims of Airbus A320, who died when the plane crashed on its way from Paris to Cairo on May 19.
The visit was canceled amid a lack of clear strategy by the Egyptian government for returning the bodies, provoking outrage in France, and prompting speculations it may relate to the cause of the crash.
“We don’t know when the transfer process will be completed. No dates, nothing.”
Fifteen of the 66 people on board A320 were French, and their families have been desperate to receive the bodies of their loved ones.
“I am just so angry with Egypt,” Serge Guillotte, who lost his wife in the crash, says, too emotional to elaborate further.
Sebastien Busy, a lawyer for the French families, told Mada Masr in Paris that Egyptian investigators have identified the victims through DNA from the body parts, and thus are able to return them to their families. “It is not clear why the bodies have not been returned until now,” he says.
After Le Figaro’s report on Tuesday that the victims’ remains would soon be returned, Mada Masr contacted Busy again. “We don’t know when the transfer process will be completed. No dates, nothing,” he explained.
The New York Times released similar information on Wednesday saying Egypt had finally consented to return the bodies.
When this news was shared on the Facebook page for the French victims’ families association, families commented, “Unfortunately, Quai d’Orsay confirmed to us that Egypt has given no date for settlement.”
Sandrine Cormary, whose cousin, 29-year-old Clement, died in the crash, also says the families have no idea when they will receive the bodies of their loved ones. This was confirmed by Ambassador Thierry Viteau, who added that French authorities haven’t yet had confirmation from Egypt as to when the repatriation will take place, according to Cormary.
Busy and Cormary say the families received an email from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs on October 10, promising compensation from EgyptAir amounting to 22,000 euros per victim, in keeping with procedure. This compensation is independent of the investigation’s findings.
“Are the bodies being used as blackmail?”
Le Figaro drew its own conclusions about the delay: This summer in Cairo, Egyptian investigators showed police from the French Ministry of Interior’s department specializing in forensic research traces of explosives and body parts from the plane. Egyptian investigators wanted the French police to sign a report acknowledging the presence of explosives and therefore proving the plane had crashed as a result of terrorism, but they refused.
“Are the bodies being used as blackmail? Are they being kept for political, economic and diplomatic reasons?” Cormary asks, adding that her family and others have been trying to pressure French officials to resolve the situation as soon as possible.
French President Francois Hollande promised to raise the issue with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York last September, Cormary says. “But we know nothing. Nobody is talking to us and we are learning the news from the newspapers, which is shocking,” she adds.
Egypt’s behavior over repatriating the bodies is unusual. In the case of the Russian airliner that crashed in October 2015 in Sinai, a Russian plane flew some of the remains of the deceased to St. Petersburg in less than 48 hours, and the remaining body parts days later after DNA testing.
France has witnessed a number of terrorist attacks in the last couple of years, with the attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in January 2015 that killed 12 people, the November 2015 Paris attacks that killed 128 people, and the July 2016 Nice attacks that killed 87 people. However, the French have discarded the possibility of terrorism in the case of Airbus A320. They are doubtful about traces of explosives, not having examined the debris and bodies themselves. The fact that no entity has claimed responsibility for the clash has weakened the probability of a terrorist attack for them, but not necessarily for Egyptian authorities.
After the voice recorder from the cockpit and flight data was analyzed in July, Egyptian investigators reported that the word “fire” was said shortly before the plane crashed. This is in keeping with the earlier detection of fire alarms onboard the plane through its Acars system, which sends updates and anomalies on flights to the airline’s engineering base. But, whether the fire was the product of a mechanical error or a criminal act is not clear.
The Times cited a French diplomat saying, “One can suppose that the Egyptian government has every interest in protecting its national airline.”
Unable to reach Egyptian investigators for comment, Mada Masr looked into the standard protocol in such incidents, and the EgyptAir data it could obtain on the flight, especially as Airbus A320 had a record of incidents.
According to company data, EgyptAir for Maintenance and Engineering is in charge of maintaining its aircraft. This company is affiliated with the EgyptAir Holding Company. Its clients include more than 91 international airlines, including Alitalia, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines. It has a main office at Cairo International Airport, as well as stations in different airports, including Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and London’s Heathrow, where it performs small-scale maintenance.
Every flight has an assigned engineer and a technician, who are responsible for checking its safety. They give the plane the green light to take off, or delay or cancel the flight if it needs maintenance, ranging from small to larger issues. Flights are rarely canceled due to the large costs involved, and only if absolutely necessary, a source from Cairo International Airport tells Mada Masr on condition of anonymity
“EgyptAir for Maintenance and Engineering has 100 percent responsibility for the plane’s maintenance, not just in terms of the flight from Paris to Cairo, but those preceding it too,” the source said, adding, “We have a maintenance station at Charles de Gaulle and a maintenance team was on board the flights preceding Paris.”