The lawyer of the airline whose plane was allegedly used for a ‘donkey flight’ and was grounded in France has claimed that most of the passengers had hotel reservations and return tickets from Nicaragua, which was the destination as far as the company was concerned. Officials have said 299 of the plane’s 303 passengers were Indian and the plane was grounded after a tip-off that the fliers were likely to be victims of human trafficking.
Sources had told news agency AFP that the plane may be linked to a crime syndicate attempting to smuggle individuals into the United States. Nicaragua, a central American nation, has seen a marked rise in Indians attempting to enter the US illegally.
Speaking exclusively to NDTV on Tuesday, Liliana Bakayoko, the lawyer for Romania-based Legend Airlines, said, “I am the lawyer of the company. My colleagues who defended the passengers before the judge told the media that the passengers they defended all had return tickets. They had hotel reservations and return tickets… I don’t know for when, actually. But not for the next day.”
When it was pointed out to her that, according to available information, only 12 of the 303 passengers had a return ticket, Ms Bakayoko said, “The company’s aeroplane was hired by a client, which is a foreign company, to perform such flights. According to my colleagues in France, all the passengers they defended, almost all of them had return tickets and hotel reservations. But it is true that only three passengers were heard by the judge”.
On the sequence of events after the plane landed in France’s Vatry for refuelling on Friday, Ms Bakayoko said it was a peculiar situation because the airline’s crew was ordered to leave the airport, go to a hotel and wait to be called to testify as witnesses. This, she said, meant leaving the passengers behind and the flight’s Captain was wondering what to do because he had a duty towards the people in the plane.
She said the crew was called two hours later and they were really afraid because they did not know exactly what was going on.
“I just advised them to go and to say everything they know. So everybody went there and the interrogations took place. It took hours and they were all left free to go. But the plane was seized, so we didn’t know what to expect. The passengers were all asked to remain in the airport. Later the plane was released, but the passengers were still retained. We decided to wait and see what happened with the passengers,” the lawyer said.
Hearings At Airport
Ms Bakayoko said hearings were conducted at the airport. Judges went there with attorneys to listen to the passengers and, after three hearings, the judges declared that the procedure was irregular.
“Under French law, when the police detain somebody, they are obliged to notify the person their rights, with a translator if they don’t speak French, and with an attorney. And there were no translators available, there were two translators and one of them left because of some personal considerations. So there were no available translators, and it took too long for the local authority to notify the rights of the passengers,” the lawyer said.
“So the judge said that the procedure is irregular because of this, because people have stayed within the airport, actually for hours, some for 11 hours, without knowing at all what’s going on, without understanding the explanations. And nobody was giving explanations, actually, even in French. These people were afraid. So the judge ruled that the detention is irregular. The French authorities decided to let everybody go home,” she added.
The lawyer said other problems arose because some of the passengers did not want to go to India, where the plane landed on Tuesday.
“India was the country that was ready to just accept the passengers very quickly. The United Arab Emirates refused. Nicaragua, as far as we know, also (refused). So, as the passengers were Indian nationals, the Indian Embassy worked hard with the French authorities to speed up the process of obtaining all the permits necessary to fly to India. Some of them refused to go… In the end, 276 passengers boarded and left for India and the others requested asylum,” she explained.
Who Was The Client?
Ms Bakayoko said the client who chartered the flight from Dubai to Nicaragua was responsible for checking the passengers’ passports, tickets and visas. She said the client was a foreign company, a non-European one, but refused to disclose the identity.
Pressed on whether other flights to Nicaragua had been chartered by the same client, she answered in the affirmative, but said she did not have the data on hand to say how many Indians were aboard such flights.
‘Donkey flights’ refer to a method used by some migrants wherein they transit through third countries with lenient travel document requirements to reach their final destinations.