The Times of London reports:
As a killer convicted of stabbing a man to death, Vitaly Kaloyev could expect to be shunned upon his release from prison. In Russia, however, the 52-year-old architect, who killed the air traffic controller blamed for the plane crash in which he lost his wife and two children, is being treated as a national hero.
Last month Kaloyev, who was freed last November from a Swiss jail after serving less than four years, was appointed deputy construction minister for his home region of North Ossetia, in southern Russia. The Russian government is said to have lobbied hard to secure his early release. After landing in Moscow he thanked Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Members of the Nashi, a controversial pro-Kremlin youth movement, lined the roads from the airport in Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, with posters hailing him as a hero. “I’m not a hero. I’m an ordinary guy,” he said recently. “As for those people who lined the streets, they just care about their children and other people’s children. People ask me if I feel any remorse. There’s only one thing I regret. That I’ve lost my family and my life is ruined.”
Kaloyev was building a holiday villa in Spain for a wealthy Russian when his wife Svetlana, 44, 10-year-old son Konstantin and four-year-old daughter Diana, set out to join him for a holiday in July 2002. As their plane flew over Germany it collided with a cargo jet killing all 71 people on board, most of them Russian schoolchildren. Investigators later established that Peter Nielsen, a Dane working for Skyguide, the Swiss air-traffic control service at Zurich airport, was the only person on duty. He had panicked when he realised the two planes were on a collision course and gave wrong instructions to the pilots. “I was at the airport waiting to pick up my family when I was told of the crash,” Kaloyev recalled. “I immediately flew to Germany to the crash site and for days walked round the fields looking for my wife and children. I found my children’s remains, washed them and laid them to rest in their coffins.”
Like other bereaved relatives, Kaloyev grew angry at the slow pace of the investigation and the way Skyguide, fearful of lawsuits, sought to place the blame on others. “I wanted Skyguide to at least apologise, instead all I got was lies about the Russian pilots being to blame,” he said. In February 2004, he flew to Zurich to seek a meeting with representatives of Skyguide. When they refused to see him he sought out Nielsen at his house. “I wanted to talk to him. I wanted an explanation, an apology,” he recalled. “I was very calm when I knocked on his door. He came out. I told him that I was from Russia and I asked him to let me in, but he unexpectedly shut the door behind him. I said, ‘Okay,’ and pulled out pictures of my children’s grave. Nielsen pushed my hand away, waving at me to go. The pictures fell on the ground. When they fell, I felt that Nielsen had killed my children all over again. Everything turned black, I couldn’t see anything.”
Kaloyev claims he cannot remember what happened next, but does not deny stabbing Nielsen several times with a pocket knife. Nielsen bled to death before an ambulance could reach him. Kaloyev was arrested the following day and was sentenced to eight years for manslaughter. His sentence was later reduced after a Swiss judge ruled that he had acted with diminished responsibility.
Last year four Skyguide employees were found guilty of negligent homicide in a separate case that examined the events that led to the 2002 crash. Three middle-level managers were given suspended jail sentences and another received a suspended fine of £6,000. Kaloyev believes the killing speeded up the crash investigation. “People ask me if I’ve forgiven Nielsen,” he said. “Why should I? All I did was protect the memory of my children. “His children are growing up. They’re healthy and happy. I’ve no reason to be happy with my life. He is a nobody to me. I think he was foolish and he paid for it. Had he invited me in, I believe we would have had a different conversation and this tragedy could have been avoided.”