Thrown by unseen enemies, Ethiopian Air hijacker waltzes into Swiss jail

The pilot who stole his own jet and sought political asylum in Geneva was from a solid middle-class family. School friends remember a calm presence; a sister suggests darker emotions. 

Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/AP
Passengers are evacuated from a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight at the airport in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Feb. 17, 2014. A hijacked aircraft traveling from Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa to Rome has landed at Geneva's international airport early Monday morning. Swiss authorities have arrested the hijacker.

A fateful mix of paranoia, grief over the death of an uncle, and professional frustration may have led a seemingly content and level-headed Ethiopian assistant pilot to hijack his own jet in a doomed bid to gain asylum in Switzerland.

Instead of being granted refuge by Swiss authorities, Hailemedhin Abera may face up to 20 years in jail for taking hostage around 200 passengers and crew on the Ethiopian Airlines flight.

The journey from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa to Rome was redirected to Geneva early Monday after the 31-year-old locked the pilot out of the cockpit during a toilet break. On arrival, Mr. Hailemedhin climbed out of the cockpit window using a rope – and was promptly arrested.

According to Swiss police, the hijacker – who’d been with the airline five years – said he faced persecution in Ethiopia. Yet with a well-paying job, siblings living in the US, and frequent foreign travels, the claim seems far-fetched.

Had Hailemedhin wanted to claim political asylum, he could have done so without risking the lives of passengers and a length prison sentence.

However, accounts from members of his solidly middle-class family suggest that other things had been tearing at Hailemedhin. Tnsae Abera, his sister, said on Facebook that he thought he was being pursued by “enemies” and was struggling mentally.

“He believed that his phone was tapped. He wouldn't use his laptop unless he covered the camera because he believed he was under surveillance,” she wrote.  “He even believed that his home was being searched when he was away up to the point that he left a hidden camera when he went out.”    

The Associated Press reported that Hailemedhin's uncle said his nephew had been in turmoil after another uncle died a few weeks ago while traveling home from his job as a university lecturer.   

A former pilot with state-owned Ethiopian Airlines said that since the hijacking Hailemedhin was rumored to be at odds with airline bosses after failing to gain a promotion. “Maybe he was at breaking point,” the former pilot says. 

The hijacker’s family declined to comment owing to the “sensitivity of the situation.”

Raised in the northern Ethiopian city of Bahir Dar, Hailemedhin was known at school as a calm, studious person. A friend who saw him two months ago at a bar here frequented by wealthy Ethiopians and expatriate workers said he looked “happy" and was "playing [and] dancing” with his girlfriend. 

Without doubt, there are plenty of people looking to exit Ethiopia. Despite a growing economy, decent jobs are scarce; average income in 2012 stood at $380, according to the World Bank. Every year hundreds of thousands of young Ethiopians – most from impoverished farming families – migrate to the Gulf as maids and factory workers.

Many migrants have fled political persecution, including opposition activists and dissident journalists. Ethiopia’s dominant ruling party is credited with improving lives by investing in roads, schools and hospitals. But the government brooks little dissent and leaves less to chance in matters of internal security; armed police patrol the streets and surveillance networks are extensive.

US-based law lecturer Alemayehu Weldemariam said Hailemedhin's desperate action “discloses a deeper insanity -- the utter insanity of the authorities his anger is directed at.”

However, according to one childhood friend, Hailemedhin, like many Ethiopians, was not inclined to political statements or gestures – let alone attention-grabbing stunts.

“I’m confused why he decided to do this,” the friend said in a phone interview.

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