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Ethiopian expats divided on co-pilot’s motives

The co-pilot took control of the plane, which was flying from Addis Ababa to Rome, while the pilot was taking a bathroom break, locking himself in the cockpit. Keystone

The recent hijacking of an Ethiopian Airlines jetliner by its co-pilot to Geneva has members of a politically divided community guessing the man’s intentions. What’s more, they are suspicious of each other’s interpretations.

For Switzerland’s 2,000-strong Ethiopian community – like many other expat communities divided by politics back home – finding common ground or agreeing on the reason for the hijacking on February 17 is nearly impossible.

United by their homeland, Ethiopians living in Geneva regroup separately according to their political convictions, meeting at distinct venues, including the many restaurants that now exist around town.

So when spoke to Marta (not her real name), about the 30-year-old co-pilot who took control of an Addis Abeba to Rome flight before landing it safely in Geneva and requesting asylum, her words offered as harmonious a position as ever within a politically divided community.

“As an Ethiopian, he is our brother,” the businesswoman said, adding that she and the pilot were of a similar age. “If he had a political reason, it must be a good one – otherwise, if he has a mental problem, then he should get medication.”

A few weeks after the Ethiopian (who cannot be named because of Swiss privacy law) descended out of the plane’s cockpit window on a rope before presenting himself to authorities as the co-pilot and hijacker, officials remain tight-lipped about his case.


The Swiss Public Prosecutor’s Office confirmed to that it was unable to communicate anything new since issuing a statement on February 20 saying that the Ethiopian was being held in provisional detention, while an investigation was underway to create “a full scenario of the events during the hijacking”.

However, Geneva cantonal prosecutor Olivier Jornot said that the co-pilot would be investigated for hostage-taking, which could carry a 20-year sentence. He expressed doubts that asylum would be granted. “I think his chances are not very high,” he told the media at the airport following the hijacking.

The Associated Press reported that a family member believed the Ethiopian had been distressed by the sudden death of an uncle on his way to work.

A spokesman for the Ethiopian government, Redwan Hussein, said the co-pilot’s actions did not make sense, explaining that he had no previous criminal record. He said Ethiopia may seek his extradition, although there is no agreement for extradition between the two countries.

According to the most recent report of the United Nations Human Rights Committee from 2011, the Ethiopian government had “undertaken very few investigations on alleged human rights violations”.

Non-governmental organisations Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International charge the Ethiopian authorities with  severely restricting freedom of expression, association and assembly.

HRW says journalists and members of the opposition have been convicted under a “vague Anti-Terrorism Proclamation” and that excessive force has been used to respond to protests by Muslim communities.

Amnesty claims the government imprisons both actual and perceived government opponents.

Human rights

Dawit Texlemariam, a former political refugee in Switzerland, explained that while some people may now view the co-pilot as a terrorist, others think he wanted to attract attention to the human rights situation in the country.

“If he had simply requested asylum like anyone else, no one would have paid attention. But by making such a gesture, he hoped the world would be aware of the human rights situation [in Ethiopia]. Maybe he wanted to mediatise what he had in his head.”


Texlemariam came to Switzerland in 1975 and has since become Swiss.

Tafese Belete, another former refugee and representative for the NGO Africa Humanitarian Action, agreed, saying the co-pilot probably wanted to make a strong statement about human rights in the country.

On the other side of the political divide, Robert, a patron at Awash restaurant, harshly condemned his behaviour and said that according to Ethiopian media, the co-pilot’s family believed he was insane.

Ethnic divides

“If he had been Muslim, people would say he belonged to al-Qaeda,” said the business manager, who asked to remain anonymous. “People, such as the co-pilot, who do these sorts of things are just trying to politicise the situation.”

Just like government opponents, he described the political split among Ethiopians as following ethnic divides associated to government regimes.

Minelik Alemu Getahun, ambassador to Switzerland and the United Nations in Geneva, said Ethiopians here were “saddened by the situation and asked why and how this could have happened”.

Marta, who travels regularly to Ethiopia for business, immediately asked that her real name not be used when she began to talk about hijacker. “If he has a political issue, it must be a good one. He is well educated and his family is well respected. People must hear what he will have to say.”

She said Ethiopians here were afraid of each other. “You cannot express your feelings because you are afraid.”

For her part, she preferred not to get involved in political discussions. “I cannot change anything anyway. I want to have a peaceful life.”

According to the Federal Migration Office, 2,211 Ethiopian nationals resided in Switzerland in 2012. At the end of 2013, it recorded 843 Ethiopian asylum seekers, of whom 342 were granted refugee status and an additional 311 were given temporary protection.

Refugee status

For Alexandra Geiser of the Swiss Refugee Council, the percentage of successful Ethiopian asylum seekers, averaging 25% in the past five years according to the migration office, compares favourably with other nationalities.

“That’s already a first sign that the authorities agree they are refugees,” she said.

But some Ethiopians who spoke to reinforced a sense of suspicion within the community, saying they feared spies would occasionally infiltrate the refugee community.

Belete argued that some asylum applicants would claim they experienced political persecution in Ethiopia and then change sides politically to support the country’s regime once allowed to stay in Switzerland.

Beat Meiner, secretary-general at the Swiss Refugee Council, recognised that certain regimes “send their ‘spies’ undercover as asylum seekers”, which leads to a difficult situation for the authorities.

Considering “the high value of goods at stake – your life and your integrity – a mistake can have very serious consequences. Maybe if you have doubts, it’s better to have someone stay than to send him back,” he said.

Paula Dupraz-Dobias /

Import political problems

Geiser explained that for many communities coming from politically divided countries, the diaspora would import “political problems from their country of origin” and it was common to see accusations and fear invade relations within the community.

For a few Ethiopians who apply for asylum, such as Alex (pictured), the decision process can been all too long and complicated. His first entry into Switzerland was 14 years ago. He is still waiting for a decision on his status.

Alex explained that he came to Switzerland after being sent to prison in Ethiopia for his anti-government views. After he and his family began receiving phone threats, he fled, paying a high price to get him all the way to Switzerland.

At the Addis Abeba restaurant in the Paquis district of Geneva, Texlemariam said he thought the Ethiopian Airlines’ co-pilot knew exactly what he was doing when he hijacked the plane.

“I’m pretty sure that [Switzerland] will not expel him, knowing what can happen to him. I hope they don’t.”

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