French pilots escape Dominican Republic after 'Air Cocaine' drug conviction
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Two Frenchmen facing jail in the Dominican Republic for piloting a jet filled with cocaine fled the Caribbean nation by boat to return to France, one of the men said Tuesday, the latest twist in a tale of drugs and intrigue dubbed “Air Cocaine”.
Pascal Fauret, 55, and co-pilot Bruno Odos, 56, were among four Frenchmen handed 20-year terms in Santo Domingo in August following their March 2013 arrest for allegedly trying to smuggle 26 suitcases of cocaine out of the Dominican Republic
But on Tuesday they were back with their families in France after travelling by boat from the Caribbean nation to the Franco-Dutch island of Saint Martin before flying to Martinique and then on to France.
Fauret, who like Odos has protested his innocence, said at a press conference in Paris organised by their lawyers that he felt they had no choice but to leave the Dominican Republic.
"The justice system did not open an investigation, it did not listen to us and we were sentenced to 20 years in jail just because we're French and not good Christians," he said.
"I'm sorry, but my first instinct was to return to my country where I could speak before a functional justice system and try to go back to a normal life."
Their lawyer Jean Reinhart insisted the men had not "fled" the Dominican Republic.
Seeking justice in France
"They are not trying to evade justice," he insisted. "The first thing they did upon their return was to write to the magistrate" in charge of their case in France.
"They are not escapees, because they were not in prison," he added, explaining that the pair were not being held in detention, though they were also not authorised to leave the Dominican Republic pending a judicial appeal.
Exactly how they managed to leave the Dominican Republic remains shrouded in mystery.
BFM television reported that they fled by boat to the French Antilles and then flew to Paris from there, aided by former intelligence agents and an unnamed French politician.
Eric Dupond-Moretti, a high-profile lawyer who is defending the pilots, said he could not give details of their journey because "it was not done alone, there were other people involved".
But he said the men had left of their own accord, telling the press conference: "It's no use imagining that a team of spooks was paid by the French state to facilitate this escape. That's not it at all."
The foreign ministry said the men had received no help from the French state in leaving the Dominican Republic.
26 suitcases of cocaine
The pilots were arrested in March 2013 along with two other men, Nicolas Pisapia and Alain Castany, as they were about to take off from the Dominican resort of Punta Cana.
Authorities said they were preparing to leave on a mid-size Dassault Falcon 50 jet with 26 suitcases containing 680 kilograms (1,500 pounds) of cocaine.
All four, who were in custody for 15 months while their case was being heard, say they are innocent. Pisapia and Castany are still in the Dominican Republic.
At their trial, defence lawyers argued there was no proof the men knew the drugs were on the plane.
Dominican Republic demands men’s return
The Domincan Republic said Tuesday it would seek to have Fauret and Odos arrested by the French authorities and returned to the country.
"We are proceeding with a request for an international arrest warrant for the pilots involved," Attorney General Francisco Dominguez Brito said in a statement
"We are in contact with the French authorities, not only to determine how they escaped the country and their accomplices, but also to make them assume their responsibility in (the Dominican Republic), regardless of any other cases that may arise in France," he said.
He also criticised the court for allowing them to remain free pending appeal.
"It doesn't make the slightest sense that a foreigner accused of drug trafficking be granted a relaxed form of restrictions... because this is a person who without a doubt will escape," he said.
Four Dominican locals have also been jailed for sentences ranging between five and 10 years in connection with the case.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)