updated 9/4/2007 10:48:59 AM ET 2007-09-04T14:48:59

Four employees of a Swiss air traffic control company were convicted of negligent homicide on Tuesday in the 2002 mid-air collision of a passenger plane and cargo jet that killed 71 people — most of them vacationing Russian schoolchildren.

Only one Skyguide air traffic controller was on duty at the time of the collision over German airspace. That man, Peter Nielsen, was stabbed to death in 2004 by a Russian whose wife and children were killed.

Some of the defendants, who were not identified during the trial because of Swiss privacy laws, blamed Nielsen for not following proper procedures, but prosecutors cited a culture of negligence and lack of risk awareness at Skyguide, maintaining the collision was not solely Nielsen’s fault.

Three of those convicted Tuesday — all middle managers — received one-year suspended prison sentences. The fourth was ordered to pay a $11,200 fine for his role in the collision, on July 1, 2002, of a Bashkirian Airlines plane and a DHL cargo jet near the south German town of Ueberlingen, killing the two cargo pilots and everyone on the passenger plane.

All four will have to pay court costs of $20,700.

Four other Skyguide officials were acquitted of wrongdoing.

Prosecutors had requested suspended prison sentences ranging from six to 15 months for all defendants.

Murdered man's mistakes
Vitaly Kaloyev, the Russian who killed Nielsen, is currently serving a 5¼-year prison sentence.

Before his death, Nielsen told investigators that he had worked under stressful conditions on the night of the crash, because a colleague took a break and maintenance on the air traffic control system had affected monitoring and communications.

Prosecutors say neighboring control centers were not informed that the main telephone connection to Skyguide was out of order that night. German officials tried to warn Nielsen that the planes were on a collision course in airspace under Skyguide’s jurisdiction, but could not reach him.

By the time Nielsen realized the problem, he gave the planes only 44 seconds’ warning that they were getting too close to each other. He also mistakenly told the Russian plane to descend — sending it straight into the cargo jet.

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