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Why Would a Pilot Hijack His Own Plane?

An Ethiopian pilot hijacked his plane and flew to Switzerland seeking asylum. He probably won't get it — but he may get 20 years in prison.

by Drennon Kimpton
Feb 19 2014, 2:10pm

Photo by Aero Icarus

Early Monday morning, 40,000 feet above Sudan, the pilot of Ethiopian Airline Flight ET-702 went to the bathroom. That meant the co-pilot, 31-year-old Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn, was left in the cockpit alone.

The door locked behind him, Tegegn quickly took command of the aircraft. He was hijacking it as part of a plan to seek asylum in another country. The flight was originally destined for Rome, but Italy has a reputation among many Africans for being relatively hostile toward asylum seekers. So Tegegn, who was born and raised in Ethiopia and had worked for the airline for five years, instead flew toward Geneva and Switzerland's relatively liberal asylum policies.

“Do you know if we will get the asylum in time?” Tegegn asked air traffic control as the plane approached Geneva International Airport. “We need asylum or assurance that we will not be transferred to the Ethiopian government.”

When Tegegn safely landed the plane, he climbed out of the cockpit window using a yellow emergency rope, rushed toward waiting police, and immediately surrendered. All 202 people aboard the plane were evacuated uninjured.

What the hell would make an Ethiopian pilot who reportedly had no criminal record hijack his own plane and seek asylum in Switzerland? Well, while his methodology may be unique, Tegegn is hardly alone when it comes to his desire for asylum. The United Nations reported that in the first six months of 2013 alone, nearly 42,000 Ethiopians sought asylum in other countries. Ethiopia has a long history of suppressing freedom and committing human rights violations: extrajudicial executions, mass arrests, arbitrary detentions, torture, and rape.

“Ethiopia has a horrendous human rights record, and as a result many Ethiopians flee,” Felix Horne, Ethiopia Researcher for Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. “Arbitrary detention is commonplace, torture is documented in prisons, demonstrations are met with violence from security forces, and there is little in the way of media freedom. Any form of dissent or criticism against government is punished.”

According to Amnesty International, the Ethiopian government has recently cracked down on freedom of speech and created new repressive laws that prevent human rights organizations from providing aid. Detainees have been beaten with pieces of wire, metal, and furniture; suspended by their wrists; prevented from sleeping; and held in solitary confinement with no light for prolonged periods of time.

Of course, Tegegn may also be nuts. A spokesman for the Ethiopian government said that he'd been declared “medically sane,” but Tegegn's family appeared shocked by the news. A woman who said she was his sister tweeted that her brother loved his country and his job, and that there must be some other explanation for his behavior (the Twitter account has since been deleted).

According to Geneva officials, it's unlikely that Tegegn will be granted the asylum he apparently desperately desires. That said, he may be staying in Switzerland for a good long while — Tegegn is currently in custody and could face up 20 years in prison for the hijacking.