A grief-stricken, mentally unstable co-pilot hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines jet on Monday on its way from Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to Rome and diverted it to Geneva, Switzerland after locking the official pilot out of the cockpit when he went to the bathroom, according to Swiss officials.
Passenger Francesco Cuomo told Italian news agency ANSA that the hijacker, 31-year-old Hailemedhin Abera, threatened to crash the plane if the pilot did not stop trying to get back into the cockpit. Then, the oxygen masks came down.
Once the plane landed in Switzerland, the hijacker climbed out of the window of the jet's cockpit using a rope and surrendered to police.
In Geneva, all 202 passengers and crew exited safely from the Boeing 767-300 plane.
The man "wanted asylum in Switzerland," Geneva International Airport chief executive Robert Deillon told the Associated Press. "That's the motivation of the hijacking."
Geneva prosecutor Olivier Jornot said Swiss federal authorities were investigating the hijacking and would press charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, 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 do what he did.
Instead of political refuge, Geneva prosecutor Olivier Jornot said Swiss federal authorities may grant Abera 20 years in jail for taking hostage around 200 passengers and crew on the Ethiopian Airlines flight.
Abera – who’d been with the airline five years – said he faced persecution in Ethiopia even though he had a well-paying job, siblings who are living in the US, and had afforded frequent trips abroad.
There may have been other factors at play, however. Tnsae Abera, his sister, said on Facebook that he thought he was being pursued by "enemies” and was battling mental instability.
In fact, Hailemedhin could have claimed political asylum without risking the lives of passengers and a length prison sentence.
"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,” his sister 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.”
Other factors for his hijacking are an uncle dying a few weeks ago while traveling home from his job as a university lecturer and a rumor that he was at odds with airline bosses after failing to gain a promotion.
"Maybe he was at breaking point,” a former Ethiopian Airline pilot who knew Abera said.
Undoubtedly, there are plenty of people looking to exit Ethiopia.
Good-paying jobs are scarce, average income in 2012 stood at $380, according to the World Bank, and there is an annual influx of of young Ethiopians – most from impoverished farming families – migrating to the Gulf as maids and factory workers.
Many migrants have fled political persecution, including opposition activists and dissident journalists.
Despite claims of "harassment," "armed police patrolling streets,” and "undemocratic actions" by Ethiopia’s dominant ruling party, it is credited with improving lives by investing in roads, schools and hospitals.