Pilot's ordeal ends after Harare court dismisses overstaying charge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am

A Hong Kong helicopter pilot detained in Zimbabwe before its elections is free after a court cleared him of a charge of overstaying in the country.

Brent Smyth, 32, flew from Harare to Johannesburg in South Africa after the court ruling in Harare on Thursday. It was a mix of tears, smiles and hugs when he was reunited with his mother Danielle Smyth and fiancee Drieksie Janse van Rensburg when he landed.

'It is so great to be able to go home,' said Mr Smyth, who had been detained for more than a week.

Mr Smyth is a Hong Kong permanent resident who also has South African and British citizenship.

He was arrested at Charles Prince Airport, Harare, as he was about to fly presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai to campaign in remote areas ahead of last Saturday's election.

Mr Smyth was charged with overstaying in the country and fraud, related to a hotel booking, before the police dropped both charges last Friday. He was again accused of overstaying on Monday.

'The worst thing for me was that I had no idea what was going to happen,' Mr Smyth told the South China Morning Post.

He said he had been told several times he would be released but all his hopes had been in vain until the last minute.

Mr Smyth was granted British and South African consular access two days after his arrest and was then moved from police custody to accommodation provided by the South African embassy.

'I was doing okay physically and my family gave me tremendous support as we kept in touch by SMS,' Mr Smyth said.

He thanked everyone who had supported him and shown concern.

Mr Smyth, a pilot with a South Africa-based charter company, said he would never give up his flying career but had learned a lesson.

'I will definitely get more information in future about clients' credibility, travel documents and what's in their luggage, which we used to have no idea about ahead of trips,' he said.

He said he would be returning to Hong Kong in June for a family reunion and he planned to come back permanently in two or three years.

'Hong Kong is my home,' Mr Smyth said. 'I was brought up in Hong Kong. My parents and a lot of good friends of mine are living there. I am sure my future life and career are in Asia, especially in Hong Kong.'