Government concerned about safety of Canadian crew who reported cocaine in plane in Dominican Republic
5 crew members remain there without charges after authorities reported finding cocaine on flight
Canadian government officials say they're concerned for the safety of members of a Canadian flight crew in the Dominican Republic and are trying to get them an expedited investigation and home quickly if no charges are laid.
On April 5, Dominican authorities detained the five Canadian crew members — two pilots, two flight attendants and a maintenance engineer — after the crew say they reported finding a bag hidden in the belly of a Pivot Airlines plane.
Dominican drug control officials later posted a video online claiming they found eight black duffel bags stuffed with more than 200 kilograms of cocaine onboard the plane.
The prime minister and Foreign Affairs minister raised the matter with their counterparts at the Summit of the Americas last week and were assured that the case would be handled according to the rule of law.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told CBC News the government continues to ask for more to be done.
"I'm very concerned about the well-being of our Canadian crew," said Alghabra. "We will do whatever it takes to find a way to, first, ensure that they have due process and that their rights are protected, second, to see them come back 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 Dominican Republic for the past six weeks and are living a nightmare because they did the right thing.
"We thought we were heroes, what we found and what we reported," Di Venanzo said on a Zoom call from an undisclosed location in the country. "We thought we did an amazing thing by not allowing these things to come back to Canada."
Di Venanzo said the next thing they knew, they had zip-tied handcuffs on and Dominican authorities were transporting them to a local detention centre.
During the crew's nine days in jail, inmates repeatedly told them that if they didn't call home and have their family members transfer them money, they would be killed, Di Venanzo said.
"We've been threatened with death by narco criminals, extorted by inmates, and have lived in inhumane and humiliating conditions," said Di Venanzo on a video posted online with his crew last week begging the Canadian government for help.
"In prison, a dead body was placed outside our cell and we were told we would be next. We are living a nightmare."
Crew say they found bag in avionic bay
Pivot Airlines says the ordeal started when the crew flew into Punta Cana in the evening on April 4 with another commercial airline.
The crew's job was to fly home a 50-seat Pivot jet to Toronto that had been chartered by an Alberta real estate investment company. The plane had landed in Punta Cana on March 31 and stayed parked for five days in a secure location guarded by a U.S. company, the airline said. The original Pivot crew flew back to Canada, Pivot said.
On April 5, a mechanical engineer was troubleshooting an issue with the plane before takeoff to Toronto, Pivot said. That's when he spotted — in a bay under the front of the plane filled with computers, wires and fans — a black bag, the airline said.
The crew immediately cleared the passengers from the aircraft, then called RCMP and local police, said Di Venanzo.
"We didn't know at that time if it was an explosive device or contraband," said Di Venanzo.
Hours later Dominican authorities brought the crew outside where they had laid out all the duffel bags of drugs on the tarmac that they said was recovered from the plane.
The crew were then detained and crammed in a cell with up to 26 other inmates, Di Venanzo said. He said they weren't fed for three days and had to sleep on the ground or standing.
"It's just terrible," he said.
In a statement issued to CBC News, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said "consular officials are providing assistance and are in contact with the families of the Canadian citizens."
"The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs is also directly engaged on this file," said Joly's office. "This is a priority. Because of privacy concerns, we cannot discuss any further details."
Appeal underway to place Canadians back in jail
Since being released from detention in April, the crew haven't yet been interviewed by investigators or charged with anything, said Di Venanzo.
But Dominican authorities have told the crew, Di Venanzo said, that they cannot leave the country until the investigation is completed, which could take another 10 months.
Looming is a court hearing on July 21, where the Dominican Republic's prosecutor is appealing the decision to allow the Canadians out on bail.
Canadian flight attendant Christina Carello said in a video last week posted online she was "begging" for help.
"Mr. Prime Minister, if we go back to jail here, we know we might never come home," said Carello.
President of Dominican Republic gave Trudeau assurances
The airline said it's now housing its employees in undisclosed locations with private security. Di Venanzo described the crew's bail conditions as "house arrest," adding they don't have access to their passports or their own phones and are under constant surveillance by security personnel.
The CEO of Pivot Airlines, Eric Edmondson, says he's "very grateful" for the federal minister's help so far but wants the crew repatriated.
"They need to be protected," said Edmondson, who wants his crew brought back to Canada soon. "They informed on narco criminals, it's public and they're now in danger."
He's also calling on international aviation authorities to help them obtain surveillance footage. The U.S. company hired to watch the plane for the five days is not co-operating with the airline's security investigation, said Edmondson.
The Dominican Republic Embassy told CBC News that it needed more time to answer specific questions, but said broadly the country is a "social and democratic state of law, where the rule of law prevails."
"No one is above the law; in this sense these guarantees will always be assured to all citizens under any circumstance," wrote the embassy in a statement.