Cuban officer hijacks plane, seeks asylum at Guantanamo U.S. weighs prosecution, condemns 'air piracy'

July 09, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials yesterday weighed the fate of Cuban military officer who hijacked a commercial airliner and forced it to fly to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

While U.S. authorities said no decision on whether to prosecute Lt. Col. Jose Fernandez Pupo would be made for several days, legal experts said it appeared unlikely that his request for political asylum would be granted.

Pupo's case had a serious complication. Rather than flying a military aircraft to U.S. territory, he hijacked at gunpoint a plane carrying 13 civilian passengers and three crew members. Under terms of a bilateral anti-hijacking agreement, he would be subject to repatriation to Cuba for such an act.

"The overriding consideration in this case probably would not be political asylum but the safety of civilian aviation," said John Martin, a Washington-based attorney for the Federation of American Immigration Reform. "It's pretty unlikely we would ignore skyjacking provisions that date back to the 1970s."

Karen Musalo, a law professor at Santa Clara University in California, added that Pupo, even with a legitimate claim for political asylum, could be declared ineligible under the law because he committed an aggravated felony.

People such as members of the Irish Republican Army have been deemed ineligible for political asylum because of crimes they had committed, Musalo noted. But she said Pupo's case should be heard, if he can demonstrate the likelihood of political persecution in Cuba as opposed to prosecution for hijacking.

After Pupo was taken into custody for questioning by Justice Department attorneys and U.S. immigration authorities, the aircraft was allowed to continue its flight to nearby Guantanamo City. No others aboard the plane asked for political asylum.

"The United States condemns this act of air piracy," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. "We condemn acts of air piracy wherever they occur. And we condemn this one."

Pub Date: 7/09/96

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