KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia â€” The pilot of the Malaysia Airlines jet that vanished more than a week ago is a strong supporter of the political opposition leader here, but friends vehemently deny that he is a terrorist.
Flight 370 pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah has close ties with Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has been fighting a charge of sodomy. Hours before boarding the flight, Zaharie turned up at the Court of Appeal in the country’s new administrative capital, Putrajaya, for a hearing at which Anwar was sentenced to five years in prison. The opposition is appealing Anwar’s prison sentence.
Speaking to USA TODAY, a close friend of Zaharie, Peter Chong, said Zaharie does support the opposition but that the reports that he may have had a role in diverting the plane were “not true.”
“He is a political activist, yes. And yes, he was in court for Anwar’s trial and he is our strong supporter, but that does not make him a terrorist,” Chong said.
Malaysian authorities said Sunday they were “refocusing their investigation” on the crew and passengers. Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said officers from the Royal Malaysia Police visited the home of the pilot, spoke to family members and began examining his flight simulator. His laptop is also being picked apart for clues, according to local media reports.
The scrutiny follows revelations Saturday that someone aboard the jet made a series of highly technical actions to deliberately hide the plane from modern detection systems. Prime Minister Najib Razak said the path of the flight, which departed from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing at 12:40 a.m. local time on March 8, was altered shortly after takeoff. The last known signal from the airliner came more than seven hours after takeoff.
The final words from the cockpit to air traffic controllers — “All right, good night.” — apparently were spoken after the plane was diverted, Razak said.
Nirmala Nadarajah, a former Malaysia Airlines flight attendant, told USA TODAY that Zaharie is a “good, kind man.”
“He loved flying. That is his biggest passion. And he was always caring. He was always concerned about being alert and fit because he considered the safety of his passengers seriously,” she said. “This investigation is utter rubbish. He would never ever have hijacked the plane.”
The pilot isn’t the only person aboard the plane facing intensified scrutiny. Hishammuddin, also the acting transportation minister, said officers visited the home of the co-pilot and were investigating the engineers who worked on the plane.
Police chief Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar said he had requested countries with citizens on board the plane to investigate their background. He said some had already done this and found nothing suspicious, but he was waiting for others to respond. The plane was carrying 239 people.
Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities said Sunday that the number of countries involved in the search for the missing jetliner has increased from 14 to 25, as the investigation shifted its focus toward the actions of the flight crew.
Hishammuddin said 11 more countries joined the search after it was determined that the flight may have gone as far north as Central Asia, flying over several countries.
“This is a significant recalibration of the search,” he said.
Authorities were hoping for more satellite data that would narrow the search, which also includes the Indian Ocean, he said.
That search involves dozens of planes and ships in an ever-widening area where the plane may have gone down. Military and government experts on Saturday pored over satellite and radar data that may shed light on the fate of the plane but so far there is no trace of debris.
According to new satellite data analyzed by the FAA, NTSB, Air Accidents Investigation Branch and Malaysian authorities, the plane’s communications from the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) were cut off just before the aircraft reached the east coast of the peninsula of Malaysia, and the aircraft’s transponder was turned off shortly thereafter, near the border of Malaysia and Vietnam, Malaysian authorities said.
Shortly afterward, someone on board switched off the aircraft’s transponder, which communicates with civilian air traffic controllers. Although the aircraft was flying virtually blind to air-traffic controllers at this point, on board equipment continued to send “pings” to satellites.
U.S. aviation safety experts say the shutdown of communications systems makes it clear the missing Malaysia Airlines jet was taken over by someone who knew how the plane worked.
Contributing: Calum MacLeod, John Bacon; Associated Press