Ethiopian pilot found guilty of hijacking plane so he could seek asylum

ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - An Ethiopian Airlines pilot who last year diverted a plane to Geneva so he could seek asylum was, on Monday, convicted in absentia of hijacking the aircraft by a court in Addis Ababa, local radio reported.

The pilot, 32-year-old Ethiopian Hailemedehin Abera Tagegn, was second in command on the flight that was carrying 202 passengers from Addis Ababa to Rome.

He locked himself in the cockpit when the captain went to the bathroom, sent a signal saying he had hijacked the plane, and diverted it to Geneva.

The Ethiopian court threw out a charge of endangering the safety of the flight since the co-pilot's actions did not put passengers or crew members in harm's way.

Sentencing will take place on Friday.

Tagegn, who had been working for the company for five years, was unarmed when he took control of the flight.

The plane landed safely in Geneva, escorted by Italian and French fighter jets.

Once on the ground, Tagegn turned off the engines, used a rope to reach the tarmac from the cockpit window and identified himself to Swiss authorities.

He said he was seeking asylum since he "felt threatened" in his country.

Swiss authorities in May rejected an Ethiopian request for Tagegn's extradition saying he would be tried in Switzerland.

Rights groups routinely accuse Ethiopia of clamping down on opposition supporters and journalists, using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent and jail critics.