July 13, 2016 / 5:52 PM / 2 years ago

Russian judge to hear suspects in Total CEO death case

PARIS/MOSCOW, July 13 (Reuters) - A Russian court will hold a preliminary hearing on the death of the ex-boss of French oil major Total on Thursday, a judge said, paving the way for a possible trial of airport employees almost two years after the magnate’s jet crashed at a Moscow airport.

Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive of France’s largest listed company, was killed in October 2014 along with three air crew when his jet hit a snow plough just as it was taking off from Moscow’s Vnukovo airport in the middle of the night.

Five airport employees, including the driver of the snow plough who emerged unscathed from the crash, were placed under investigation for breach of airport safety, a source close to the case has said.

Overseeing multi-billion-dollar Total investments in the resource-rich country, the charismatic Margerie was a staunch defender of Russia and its energy policies.

His death occurred just as the conflict in Ukraine was raising tensions with the West to levels not seen since the Cold War, triggering economic sanctions against Moscow.

A Moscow judge said a preliminary hearing behind closed doors would be held on Thursday afternoon.

“The date of the trial itself will depend on how we proceed tomorrow,” Judge Konstantin Shelepov of the Solntsevo District Court in Moscow told Reuters.

A trial has been postponed several times and Russia’s IAC civil aviation investigative body has yet to release its report about the crash, which critics say exposed the country’s patchy air safety record.

“The fact they’re doing that during the summer holiday shows they want the trial to be done with quickly, with the least amount of publicity possible,” said Muriel Boselli, author of a posthumous biography of Margerie and a former Reuters reporter.

Boselli’s book raises questions over the slowness of the investigation, inconsistencies in accounts of what happened on the night of Margerie’s death.

IATA figures for 2015 showed an improvement in the safety record of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which groups Russia and other former Soviet republics, compared with the previous four years, but it remains the world’s second most dangerous region for air passengers behind Africa. (Reporting by Michel Rose in Paris and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Callus and Gareth Jones)

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