Prosecutors in the Dominican Republic have appealed a decision to release on bail the crew and passengers of a Canadian charter plane where a cache of 210 kilograms of cocaine was found, a legal move the plane’s owner calls “shocking.”
Pivot Airlines said in a statement Friday that it is “deeply concerned” for the safety of its employees and that the federal government must do more to try to ensure their safe return.
The Pivot’s five crew members and seven passengers were ordered released earlier this month on $23,000 bond and a requirement that they remain in the country until the drug discovery investigation is complete.
The airline has complained that that stipulation prevents Canadians from leaving the Dominican Republic, pointing out that it was crew members who discovered the contraband hidden in the plane’s “aviation bay” and then reported it to authorities.
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The judge who ordered their release noted that prosecutors had presented no evidence linking the crew or passengers to the cocaine.
They had already spent several days in jail by the time they got bail, some of them in communal cells alongside accused drug traffickers. Even after being released, they were subjected to credible death threats, the airline said.
“In a shocking move, the prosecutor recently filed an appeal of the court’s decision to grant our crew bail, despite having no evidence linking them to a crime,” Pivot said in the statement.
It is now well known in the Dominican Republic that the crew blocked the attempted smuggling of up to $25 million worth of drugs on the streets of Canada, the company says. If they are sent back to prison along with narcotics criminals, they will be in grave danger, without the protection of the private security they had outside, Pivot said.
“It is completely unacceptable that Canadian citizens can be arbitrarily detained for properly reporting criminal activity,” he said. “Together with the international unions that represent aircrew, we are warning Canadian travelers and more than 70,000 airline employees to seriously consider the risks of traveling to the Dominican Republic.”
“If reporting a crime in the Dominican Republic could result in arbitrary detention, the government should seriously consider issuing a similar travel advisory.”
Pivot said he was grateful for the help the federal government has offered so far. He is providing consular support and Maninder Sidhu, parliamentary secretary to Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, raised the issue on a previously 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 Canadians back safely, the statement said.
“They miss their families. They fear for life, as well as for their mental and physical well-being. And they want to go home.”
Meanwhile, the family of one of the passengers, Brittney Wojcik-Harrison, has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for her legal assistance, food and a possible flight home.
“She’s going to be stuck in a foreign country for a year, or she’s going to be stuck in a prison in a foreign country for a year and it turns my stomach,” said Brandon Harrison, Wojcik-Harrison’s cousin. the Calgary Herald on Friday.
The CRJ-100 regional airliner touched down in the Dominican Republic on March 31, with potential investors and their companions being entertained by an Alberta company, Pivot says. They were supposed to leave on April 5, but just before leaving, a mechanic traveling with the plane discovered a black bag inside the avionics bay, containing electronic equipment.
Pivot alerted the authorities in Canada and the Dominican Republic. Police then discovered seven other bags, all filled with cocaine.
Prosecutors argued at the bond hearing that the plane and its passengers were a “front” designed to hide the real purpose of the flight: smuggling drugs into Canada.
But they said they did not allege that no one from the group placed the cocaine on the plane, only that an additional unidentified person accompanied the crew and boarded the plane the day before it left.
Judge Francis Yojary Reyes Dilone said that the fact that the crew denounced the smuggling and that there was no evidence linking them or the passengers to the cocaine meant that he had to impose less severe restrictions on the group than those required by the prosecution.
One of the passengers said at the bond hearing that she was the guest of another man, who was a potential investor in the unnamed company.
“We have just been invited to visit your beautiful country, to have fun,” he said, according to the decision. “We are totally horrified, we were here on vacation, we have no idea what is going on… We all have amazing professions back home, we have families, I am a real estate agent, I am also a teacher.”
(Number of passengers corrected from April 29 to seven).