6 Cuban men who hijacked plane to U.S. found guilty of air piracy

December 12, 2003|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MIAMI - Six Cuban men accused of hijacking a World War II-era passenger plane to the United States were found guilty of air piracy yesterday in a case that federal officials hope will be a warning to others tempted to flee the same way.

A federal jury in Key West, Fla., rejected a defense claim that the hijacking was a "freedom flight" from the Communist-ruled island that had the cooperation of the plane's crew. Prosecutors dismissed that assertion as "laughable."

Air piracy carries a mandatory 20-year prison term and the possibility of a life sentence.

On March 19, the propeller plane, a DC-3 carrying 37 people, was diverted from Cuba's Isle of Youth to the United States. The pilot of the Cuban domestic airliner testified during the trial that the hijackers battered down the cockpit door and put a knife to his throat.

The plane, with a U.S. fighter escort, landed in Key West without further incident, and the suspects surrendered to authorities. Fourteen other people aboard chose to remain in the United States.

"The U.S. wants to send the message to the Cuban government and to the Cubans that using forceful means to leave the island won't be allowed," Hans de Salas, a researcher at the University of Miami's institute for Cuban studies, said after yesterday's verdict. "These hijackers were simply among many Cubans who want to leave the island because of the unbearable conditions there."

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