Prosecutors in the Dominican Republic have appealed a decision to free on bail the crew and passengers of a Canadian charter airliner where a 210-kilogram stash of cocaine was found, a legal move the plane’s owner calls “shocking.”
Pivot Airlines said in a statement Friday it is “deeply concerned” for its employees’ safety and that the federal government must do more to try to secure their safe return.
The five Pivot crew members and seven passengers were ordered released from jail earlier this month on $23,000 bail and a requirement that they stay in the country until the investigation of the drug find is completed.
The airline has complained about that stipulation preventing the Canadians from leaving the Dominican Republic, noting that it was members of the crew who discovered the contraband secreted in the plane’s “aviation bay” and then reported it to authorities.
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The judge who ordered them released noted that prosecutors had presented no evidence tying the crew or passengers to the cocaine.
They had already spent several days in jail by the time they won bail, some of them in communal cells alongside accused drug traffickers. Even after being released, they were subject to credible death threats, the airline said.
“In a shocking move, the prosecutor has recently filed an appeal of the court’s decision to grant our crew bail, despite having no evidence tying them to a crime,” Pivot said in the statement.
It’s now well known in the Dominican Republic that the crew stymied the attempted smuggling of drugs worth as much as $25 million on the street in Canada, the company says. If they’re sent back to prison alongside narcotics criminals, they will be in serious danger, without the protection of the private security they had on the outside, said Pivot.
“It is entirely unacceptable that Canadian citizens could be arbitrarily detained for dutifully reporting criminal activity,” it said. “Together with international unions representing the crew, we are cautioning Canadian travelers and more than 70,000 airline employees to seriously consider the risks of travel to the Dominican Republic.”
“If reporting a crime in the Dominican Republic could result in arbitrary detention, the government must seriously consider issuing a similar travel advisory.”
Pivot said it was grateful for what help the federal government has offered so far. It’s providing consular support and Maninder Sidhu, parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, raised the issue on a pre-planned visit to the country last week, according to Joly’s press secretary.
But “the simple fact is” that Ottawa has not done enough to get the Canadians back safely, said the statement.
“They miss their families. They fear for the lives, as well as their mental and physical well-being. And they want to come home.”
Meanwhile, the family of one of the passengers, Brittney Wojcik-Harrison, has begun a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for her legal assistance, food and a possible flight home.
“She’s either going to be trapped in a foreign country for a year, or she’s going to be trapped in a prison in a foreign country for a year and that makes me sick to my stomach,” Brandon Harrison, Wojcik-Harrison’s cousin, told the Calgary Herald Friday.
The CRJ-100 regional jet landed in the Dominican Republic March 31, carrying potential investors and their companions being entertained by an Alberta company, says Pivot. They were supposed to leave April 5, but just before departing a mechanic traveling with the plane discovered a black bag inside the avionics bay, which holds electronic equipment.
Pivot alerted authorities in Canada and the Dominican Republic. Police there then discovered another seven bags, all stuffed with cocaine.
Alleged prosecutors at the bail hearing that the plane and its passengers were a “façade” designed to hide the flight’s true purpose — smuggling drugs into Canada.
But they said they were not alleging any of the group placed the cocaine in the plane, only that an unnamed additional person accompanied the crew and boarded the aircraft the day before it left.
Judge Francis Yojary Reyes Dilone said the fact the crew reported the contraband and that there was no evidence linking them or the passengers to the cocaine meant he had to impose less severe restrictions on the group than the prosecution had demanded.
One of the passengers said at the bail hearing that she was the guest of another man, who was a potential investor in the unnamed company.
“We were just invited to visit your beautiful country, to have fun,” she said, according to the decision. “We are totally horrified, we were here for vacation, we have no idea what is going on … We all have incredible professions at home, we have families, I am a real estate agent, I am also a teacher.”
(Number of passengers corrected April 29 to seven.)