Russian Lands in U.K. Jail for In-Flight Call

MANCHESTER, England -- The deputy commercial director of Russia's largest steel plant is in a British jail after being arrested for refusing to switch off his mobile phone during a packed commuter flight from London to Manchester.

Sergei Lebedev, 49, of the Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works, or MMK, has pleaded guilty and now faces up to two years behind bars. Sentencing is set for Nov. 7.

Lebedev was taken into custody at Manchester Airport on Monday night after his behavior forced the pilot to abort a landing.

Cabin crew on British Airways Flight 1408 from Heathrow were so busy trying to force Lebedev to turn off his mobile phone they had not properly prepared the plane and passengers for landing, prosecutor Jo Palmiro said in presenting the case before Trafford magistrates on Tuesday.

As a result, the pilot touched down briefly on approach at Manchester but had to take off straight away for a second attempt when it was discovered a luggage compartment had not been secured.

Bizarrely, the brief touchdown caused Lebedev -- who was on fact-finding mission for MMK -- to phone his family back home in Russia claiming he feared the Boeing 737 was being hijacked by terrorists, Palmiro said.

Cabin crew made at least six requests to Lebedev to switch off his phone during the 45-minute flight, she said. "Despite numerous requests from various cabin crew, Lebedev refused to show that it was switched off," Palmiro told magistrates in the Trafford town of Sale. "At one stage a Polish cabin crew member who spoke Russian asked him to turn it off. He took out the phone from his pocket but it was still switched on."

In a desperate attempt to retrieve the phone before landing, stewards even tried to wrestle it out of Lebedev's hands, but he resisted at every attempt, according to the prosecutor. Upon landing Lebedev even struggled with the first officer before police boarded the plane and arrested him, she said.

Lebedev, who had a Russian interpreter by his side for Tuesday's 90-minute hearing, was represented by defense lawyer John Potter, who told magistrates that the defendant was not aware of British aviation laws.

"Mr. Lebedev is an experienced air traveler who has flown around the world," Potter said. "In his experience, the warnings given in Russia are that phones are not to be used during the flight. They may be switched on.

"He understood he was completely within the law. He does not speak English and he did not understand what they were saying to him."

After the Polish stewardess spoke to him, Lebedev insists he showed her his phone was switched off, although he acknowledges turning the phone on again when the plane started to land, Potter said.

"He was concerned as to his safety at that point because of the aircraft's maneuver," the lawyer said.

Lebedev, who appeared in court wearing a brown suit and glasses, pleaded guilty to endangering an aircraft and refusing to comply with the captain's orders.

After 10 minutes of deliberation, chair of the bench Ray Jolly returned with the decision to pass the case on to the Minshull Street Crown Court in Manchester.

He remanded Lebedev to custody and refused bail. "We refuse bail for reasons that you would be able to return to Russia and the chances of you returning could be very slight," Jolly said.

Lebedev, who had flown from Moscow with two colleagues, was due to visit the Sheffield Forgemasters company in Sheffield during a weeklong business trip.

Speaking outside the court, a representative from Sheffield Forgemasters, who did not give his name, said: "It's a ridiculous situation and I'm totally disgusted with the magistrates' decision. This man spoke no English -- what was he meant to do?"

A spokeswoman for British Airways said the airline welcomed the magistrates' decision.

"Thankfully the plane landed safely but it did cause unnecessary concern for other passengers and crew," said the spokeswoman, who asked that she not be identified by name. "Hopefully passengers will now get the message that they face severe consequences if they even attempt to use their phones."

Alexander Proskurov, a spokesman for MMK in Magnitogorsk, located in the Chelyabinsk region, said Lebedev's behavior was a mistake.

"He's a good guy, responsible," Proskurov said Thursday by telephone. "It was a mistake, not related to ignoring international regulations and rules of behavior. We respect those rules.

"It shouldn't be said that Russians are reckless and don't care about their own and other people's safety," he said.

Last month, traveler Fiaz Chopdat was jailed for three months by Judge Timothy Mort at Minshull Street Crown Court for switching on his mobile phone mid-flight to play games.

Chopdat, 23, was spotted repeatedly switching on his Erikson T28 to play the cult Blocks game as he and his bride Nafisa returned to Manchester from their honeymoon in Egypt.

Sol Bruckner is deputy news editor of Cavendish Press, a British news agency based in Manchester. Moscow Times Staff Writer Torrey Clark contributed to this report from Moscow.