CANADA POLITICS Government concerned about safety of Canadian crew who reported...

Government concerned about safety of Canadian crew who reported cocaine on plane in Dominican Republic

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Canadian government officials say they are concerned about the safety of Canadian aircrew members in the Dominican Republic and are trying to get them investigated quickly and returned home quickly if no charges are filed.

On April 5, Dominican authorities detained five Canadian crew members — two pilots, two flight attendants and a maintenance engineer — after crew members said they found a bag hidden in the belly of a Pivot Airlines plane.

Officials from the Dominican Drug Enforcement Service later posted a video online claiming they found eight black duffel bags filled with more than 200 kilograms of cocaine on board the plane.

A few weeks after the incident, the Canadian government updated recommendations for travel to the Dominican Republic to warn Canadians to “exercise a high degree of caution there”. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister raised the issue with their counterparts at the Summit of the Americas last week and were assured that the case would be handled in accordance with the rule of law.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a bilateral meeting with Dominican President Luis Abinader at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles on June 10. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Transport Minister Omar Algabra told CBC News the government continues to ask for more.

“I am very concerned about the welfare of our Canadian crew,” Algabra said. “We will do our best to find a way, first, to ensure that they have due process and protect their rights, and second, that they return home safely.”

One of the pilots, Captain Robert Di Venanzo, told CBC News that while he’s grateful for what the government has done, it’s not enough.

“We thought we were heroes”

Di Venanzo says he and his colleagues have been stuck in the Dominican Republic for the past six weeks and living in a nightmare because they did the right thing.

“We thought we were heroes, what we found and what we reported,” Di Venanzo said by phone via Zoom from an undisclosed location in the country. “We thought we had done an amazing thing by not allowing these things to come back to Canada.”

Di Venanzo said the next thing they learned was that they were handcuffed and were being transported by Dominican authorities to a local detention center.

According to Di Venanzo, during the nine days the team spent in prison, the prisoners repeatedly told them that if they did not call home and force family members to transfer money to them, they would be killed.

“We were threatened with death by drug criminals, we were blackmailed by inmates, and we lived in inhuman and degrading conditions,” Di Venanzo said in a video posted online last week as his team pleaded with the Canadian government for help.

“In the prison, a dead body was placed next to our cell and we were told that we would be next. We are living in a nightmare.”

The crew says they found the bag in the avionics bay.

Pivot Airlines says the test began when the crew flew to Punta Cana on the evening of April 4 on another commercial airline.

The crew’s task was to fly home a 50-seat Pivot in Toronto, which had been chartered by an Alberta real estate investment company. The plane landed in Punta Cana on March 31 and remained for five days in a safe place under the protection of a US company, the airline said. Pivot’s original crew flew back to Canada, Pivot said.

On April 5, a mechanical engineer was troubleshooting the plane before takeoff in Toronto, according to Pivot. That’s when he noticed a black bag in a compartment under the front of the plane, filled with computers, wires and fans, the airline said. According to Di Venanzo, the crew immediately disembarked the passengers from the plane and then called the RCMP and local police.

“We didn’t know at the time if it was an explosive device or contraband,” Di Venanzo said.

WATCH | Canadian flight crew detained in the Dominican Republic calls for help:

Canadian flight crew detained in Dominican Republic calls for help

Five Pivot Airlines crew members are turning to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for help after they were detained in the Dominican Republic in April for reporting millions of dollars worth of cocaine found on board their plane to police.

A few hours later, the Dominican authorities took the team outside, where they laid out on the airfield all the drug bags they said they had taken from the plane.

According to Di Venanzo, the crew was detained and stuffed into a cell along with 26 other prisoners. He said that they were not fed for three days and had to sleep on the ground or standing up.

“It’s just awful,” he said. “It’s scary to worry.”

In a statement released by CBC News, Foreign Secretary spokeswoman Mélanie Joly said “consular staff are providing assistance and contact to the families of Canadian citizens.”

“This is a priority,” Jolie’s office said. “For privacy reasons, we cannot discuss any details.”

Call to return Canadians to prison developed

Since their release from custody in April, the crew has not been questioned by investigators or charged with anything, Di Venanzo said.

But Dominican authorities told the crew, Di Venanzo said, that they could not leave the country until the investigation was completed, which could take another 10 months.

A July 21 trial is looming in which the Dominican prosecutor will appeal the decision to release the Canadians on bail.

Canadian flight attendant Christina Carello said in a video posted online last week that she was “begging” for help.

“Mr. Prime Minister, if we return to prison here, we know we may never return home,” Carello said.

The President of the Dominican Republic assured Trudeau

The airline said it is now deploying its employees in undisclosed locations with private security. Di Venanzo called the crew’s bail conditions “house arrest”, adding that they do not have access to their passports or their own phones and are under constant surveillance by security personnel.

Pivot Airlines CEO Eric Edmondson says he is “very grateful” for the federal minister’s help but wants the crew repatriated.

“They need to be protected,” said Edmondson, who wants his team to return to Canada soon. “They’ve reported drug criminals, it’s been made public, and now they’re in danger.”

WATCH | SS pilot fears for friends detained in the Dominican Republic:

NS pilot fears for friends detained in Dominican Republic

In April, a Pivot Airlines crew was jailed after millions of dollars worth of cocaine was found on their plane. Crew – friends and colleagues of Antigonish N.S., pilot Karl Falsnes. Falsnes said the case needs more attention in Canada.

He is also calling on international aviation authorities to help them obtain surveillance footage. Edmondson said the US company hired to monitor the plane for five days was not cooperating with the airline’s security investigation.

The Dominican embassy told CBC News it needed more time to answer specific questions, but overall the country is a “social and democratic constitutional state where the rule of law reigns.”

“No one is above the law, in this sense, these guarantees will always be provided to all citizens under any circumstances,” the embassy said in a statement.

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