Amid a flurry of government propaganda to label the hijacker of an Ethiopian Airlines plane a mental patient, a family member of the co-pilot says her cousin was an activist who has been resentful of the brutal rule in Ethiopia.
Speaking to the Ethiopian Satellite TV (ESAT) by phone on Wednesday, a female cousin of co-pilot Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn, who landed the passenger airliner in Geneva early on Monday and sought asylum there, said the measure was politically motivated, and not any other reason.
“He was living a comfortable life, and was a frequent traveler to the US and Europe. If he had the desire to live in the West, he had plenty of chances. But he was an activist who very much resented the gross human rights violations that the government is committing in the country,” she said.
Swiss police said on Monday all 202 passengers and crew were safe as the “act was motivated by the fact that he feels threatened in his country,” and wanted asylum.
The woman, who didn’t reveal her identity for fear of political retribution, said 31-year-old Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn and she would call each other frequently, and the co-pilot was very much opposed to the government because of lack of freedom, including harassing airlines employees to be members of the ruling party or lose their jobs.
“Many of his friends have been fired because they failed to toe party lines,” she said, adding he was also resentful of the brutal measures the ruling party was taking against the Amhara in particular and the entire Ethiopian people in general.
Asked whether she is in contact with family members in Addis, she said the phone lines were blocked with all family members but one. “My uncle is virtually under house arrest as others are under surveillance. We have also learned that Airlines officials have come under fire, being threatened to reveal how come they kept dissidents in the business.”
Though in police custody in Geneva, the woman said several calls to her cousin were never answered.
The government in Addis will definitely push the Swiss government to extradite my cousin. If they succeed, there is no doubt that they will cut him to pieces as he would expose their crimes if left free, she said. “All Ethiopians should rally to block any extradition attempts.”
The pro-democracy Ethiopian Diaspora is considering to hire lawyers to defend the rights of the co-pilot, who is now hailed as a human rights champion among Ethiopian activists both at home and abroad.
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A look at Plane Hijackings by Ethiopians
A glance at previous hijackings involving Ethiopians:
—Nov. 25, 1991: Two men and an Ethiopian woman brandishing fake hand grenades hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines jet carrying 88 people on a domestic flight, then freed all those aboard after landing in Djibouti.
—Aug. 28-30, 1992: Four Ethiopians hijack an Ethiopian Airlines jet on a domestic flight and force it to fly to Djibouti, where they release their hostages. They surrender after flying to Italy and asking for asylum.
— Feb. 11, 1993: An Ethiopian man smuggled a pistol onto a plane and hijacked a Lufthansa flight going from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa. He demanded it be flown to the U.S. because he was denied a visa. He surrendered to authorities in New York after the plane landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
— Nov. 9, 1995: An Ethiopian man trying to avoid going home used a knife from a food tray to commandeer an Olympic Airlines jet from Australia, where he was being deported from, just before it landed in Athens, Greece. Police overpowered the hijacker with no injuries to the 114 people on board.
— March 17, 1995: Five armed men seized an Ethiopian Airlines jetliner and demanded the plane be flown to Greece and then Sweden. It was instead diverted to Al Obeid, 300 miles (480 kilometers) west of Khartoum, Sudan where the hijackers surrendered, ending a 24-hour standoff after Sudan promised to help them seek asylum in Sweden.
— November 1996: Hijackers storm cockpit of flight from Ethiopia to Ivory Coast via Kenya, demanding to go to Australia. The plane runs out of fuel and crashes off the island nation of Comoros, killing 125 of the 175 people aboard.
— April 26, 2001: Five military pilot trainees who flunked flight school reportedly wrested control of a plane during a flight from Bahr Dar, in northwestern Ethiopia, to Addis Ababa and demanded to be flown to Saudi Arabia. The plane didn’t have enough fuel so it landed in neighboring Sudan.
— June 9, 2002: Two passengers armed with small knives and an explosive device attempted to hijack a domestic Ethiopian flight but were shot and killed by in-flight security, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
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