An airline whose crew was detained in the Dominican Republic along with its passengers after alerting authorities to 200 kilograms of cocaine hidden in an internal compartment is urging the federal government to intervene ahead of a court hearing that could force them back to jail.
Eric Edmondson, chief executive officer of Pivot Airlines, sent a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly asking her to call on the Caribbean country to ensure the crew’s safe return to Canada.
“For more than 24 days, our crew has been subject to threats against their lives, inhumane treatment and arbitrary detention for dutifully reporting a crime and averting a potential aviation disaster,” Mr. Edmondson wrote. “Time is of the essence.”
Five Pivot Airlines crew members and six passengers were scheduled to return to Canada from Punta Cana on a chartered aircraft on April 5. Before takeoff, a mechanic discovered suspected contraband on board and police in Canada and the Dominican Republic were alerted. If the plane had taken off, Mr. Edmondson said, the location of the contraband could have sparked an uncontrollable fire.
Dominican authorities jailed all 11 people on the plane, sending men and women to separate facilities, according to the airline.
On April 6, the Dominican Republic’s National Directorate for Drug Control released a statement that said the group was “being questioned to determine their possible involvement” in the attempted shipment of illicit drugs. Two-hundred kilograms of cocaine, stashed in eight gym bags, was seized from the aircraft.
Mr. Edmondson said the men were sent to a prison meant for narcotics criminals and were subject to harassment and beatings. The airline hired someone to ensure Pivot staff were fed and protected to some extent in prison, he said.
The group was granted bail, but is not allowed to leave the Dominican Republic. Local prosecutors are attempting to appeal the court’s bail decision. It is not clear when the hearing will take place. Mr. Edmondson said prosecutors don’t have evidence connecting the crew to the cocaine.
Death threats have continued since their release, and the airline has hired private security and relocated the crew regularly to avoid detection. The passengers have separate legal counsel and are not staying with the airline staff.
Mr. Edmondson said the crew members are afraid being returned to prison would be a death sentence.
“It’s a one-way ticket,” he said. “They don’t think they’ll be coming out of that jail if they get put back.”
Global Affairs Canada said in a statement that it is aware of the incident involving Pivot Airlines and that Canadian officials are monitoring the situation, engaging with local authorities and providing consular assistance. Adrian Blanchard, press secretary to Ms. Joly, also said that Parliamentary Secretary Maninder Sidhu recently travelled to the Dominican Republic and met with government officials.
Mr. Edmondson said the government must do more.
“The government, we think, has to step up and intervene. It’s unacceptable a Canadian airline crew can be incarcerated wrongfully,” he said.
The federal government is urging Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution if they travel to the Dominican Republic, citing violent and opportunistic crime.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry in the Dominican Republic did not respond to a request for comment.
Family members have confirmed the identity of one of the passengers as Calgary-based photographer Brittney Wojcik-Harrison. A cousin, Bella Harrison, said the family learned about her imprisonment last Thursday from a lawyer in the Dominican.
“It just feels like a movie and, when it was happening, I almost didn’t believe it,” said Ms. Harrison, adding that her cousin had been vacationing in Punta Cana. “She’s really not okay. ... She’s just trying to keep her head above water.”
Ms. Harrison said Global Affairs Canada has provided little information to the family owing to provisions of the Privacy Act. She said Ms. Wojcik-Harrison is in a safe location.
“I’m just really shocked because I’ve been proud to be Canadian my whole life and just to see how little they care about this person that literally would never be involved in this, I just don’t understand that,” Ms. Harrison said. “How can they just forget about 11 people?”
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