KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Time has not eased the pain for the family of Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the senior pilot of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Nearly two years after the plane disappeared, they must cope not only with his loss but with the theory that he was to blame.
Allegations that he was a jihadist, or suicidal over a marital breakup, or that he doomed the aircraft in a political protest do not square with his family's memories of a kind, generous and happy man, his eldest sister said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
The "rogue pilot" theory has been a focus of investigations after the Malaysian government said the plane was deliberately steered off course, but authorities have found no evidence linking Zaharie or his co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, to any wrongdoing.
"When the search (for the plane) revealed nothing, they came back to this theory, but it's only a theory," said Zaharie's sister Sakinab Shah. "If you have nothing tangible and nothing by way of evidence, it's tantamount to predicting he is guilty until proven innocent. This sets us back in the Dark Ages."
She said it was "very convenient" to make Zaharie the scapegoat to absolve the airline from claims or protect the Malaysian government from possible cover-ups and U.S. airline manufacturer Boeing from losing business.
"Please do not judge him based on theories....don't blame him unless there is evidence. I want to say that (he's) innocent until proven guilty. That is the mantra of modern civilization," she said.
Zaharie was 53 when the Malaysia Airlines' Boeing 777 jet he was piloting disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
A detailed report by an independent investigation team released a year after the plane vanished affirmed the family's assertion that Zaharie had no known history of apathy, anxiety or irritability.
The report said there were no significant changes in his lifestyle or family stresses. Zaharie has several bank accounts, two national trust funds, two houses and three vehicles but no record of him having a life insurance policy, it said.
An ongoing search for the plane in the southern Indian Ocean, where it was believed to have crashed, has turned up nothing so far. A flaperon wing part was found washed ashore on France's Reunion Island last July, and American, Australian and Malaysian officials said Wednesday that a piece of aircraft debris that washed ashore in Mozambique also appears to belong to a 777.
Sakinab said Wednesday she was excited by the new finding but didn't want to give herself false hope. She noted there was some skepticism about the latest find, in part because the piece was not encrusted in barnacles as the flaperon was.
"I am not 100 percent convinced, but I am hopeful," she said.
Sakinab, 72, said in an earlier interview Sunday that her family has come to terms with her brother's death. Still, one of her sisters had to be hospitalized last month after reading a hoax report that Zaharie had been found and was being treated in a Taiwan hospital.
"It is a sadness that we have learned to endure. It is the not knowing that has inflicted us with pain and with misery," Sakinab said. "All along, my siblings and I have had the notion that he would always be there to care for us in our old age. ... now two years have gone ... we want closure. We need closure. We seek and we cry for closure."
Sitting on a patchwork rug in the middle of the living hall at her home in a suburb outside Kuala Lumpur, Sakinab paused often and spoke haltingly as she tried to hold back tears. She hadn't talked to a reporter for more than a year and a half. She shifted through a pile of old photographs of Zaharie as a teenager, a newly graduated pilot, a bridegroom.
He was the second-youngest of nine siblings born to a poor family in northern Penang state. He had wanted to fly since childhood and after high school, he obtained a scholarship to pursue his dream, Sakinab said. After graduating from an aviation school in the Philippines, he joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981 and logged more than 18,000 flight hours.
Sakinab said Zaharie was his normal, happy self when she last saw him at a family dinner two weeks before the flight. She said he was close to all his siblings and they often have boisterous gatherings at her house.
"Zaharie was helpful, obliging, happy-go-lucky, good-natured, generous, fun-loving and the list goes on," she said.
He often took his siblings to the park to watch him fly remote-controlled aircraft, she said. He also built a flight simulator for his home using three large computer monitors and other accessories, which had grabbed attention after the tragedy. Police seized the simulator for their investigation but reported nothing suspicious about it.
"Possession of the simulator was linked to him as suicidal. That is crazy. It's his passion for gadgets, and he has the means," Sakinab said.
She said Zaharie was an enthusiastic handyman who posted several YouTube videos on topics including how to make air conditioners more efficient, how to waterproof window panes and how to repair a refrigerator icemaker. He was also a competitive home cook who boasted of his 'nasi briyani', a rice-based dish prepared with spices, meat, eggs and vegetables.
Sakinab said her brother was generous, often donating clothes and other goods to poor jungle villages. The two siblings, along with a few family members, had planned to go on a one-month road trip around Italy.
"I want to tell the world that he is a good fellow. His life is surrounded by love and he has an unblemished flying record. He wouldn't stoop so low as to murder more than 200 people," Sakinab said.
Zaharie was a member of the opposition party headed by jailed political leader Anwar Ibrahim. Sakinab said he was an ordinary member and accusations that he downed the plane to protest Anwar's jailing for sodomy just a day before the flight were "ridiculous."
"For us, it is a double dose. On top of losing him, we have to defend him against all the accusations," she said.
Sakinab said she and her siblings find it hard to believe that investigators with sophisticated equipment have been able to find no trace of the plane. Flight 370 is believed to be in an area of the Indian Ocean where the sea floor is a few miles underwater, making the search effort especially challenging.
"Nobody seems to know anything. This is just not possible ... They have found water on Mars and yet they cannot locate this huge plane," she said.
The Australian-led search of the 120,000-square-kilometer (46,000-square-mile) area where the plane is believed to be is expected to be completed in the middle of the year. Authorities have said the search, which has cost about $130 million so far, will not be expanded in the absence of fresh leads.
"Our biggest fear is that MH370 will go into oblivion, that it will remain a mystery forever and we will not get closure," Sakinab said.