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Posted December 04, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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By ABBY GOODNOUGH | Associated Press

Cuban planes at the Key West, Fla., airport in April. Six men hijacked the one on the left on March 19; the plane at right was seized March 31.

KEY WEST, Fla., Dec. 1 — Federal prosecutors outlined a meticulous yearlong plot by six Cubans accused as hijackers as their trial started here on Monday. The case involves the first of several such incidents that heightened tensions between the White House and Cubans in both Havana and Miami.

The six men are accused of using knives and an ax to take control of a flight from the Isle of Youth, off the southern coast of Cuba, to Havana on March 19. American fighter jets intercepted the plane and escorted it to Key West International Airport. None of the 31 passengers or 6 crew members were injured.

But the incident and two others that followed led President Fidel Castro to crack down on hijackings and accuse the United States of encouraging illegal immigration. In April, three Cubans who hijacked a ferry in a failed bid to reach the United States were executed.

Cuban exile leaders have said that the federal government is too worried about refuting Mr. Castro’s accusations and that it should be lenient with the defendants because they were seeking freedom. Under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, Cubans who arrive on American soil can stay in the United States. Those intercepted en route are returned.

Exile groups have pressured the Bush administration to ease the policy. They were particularly critical of a White House decision to return 12 Cubans suspected of hijacking a government boat in July.

Federal prosecutors said on Monday that the six accused of hijacking the airplane had worked for more than a year to develop a plan to overwhelm the crew and passengers of an old DC-3 by force, intimidation and threats. The men scouted the route and choreographed their actions, prosecutors said. Minutes into the flight to Havana, they charged the cockpit and broke down the door.

In an opening statement, John Delionado, an assistant United States attorney, said the man thought to be the group’s ringleader, Alexis Norneilla Morales, 31, held a knife to the pilot’s throat and demanded that he fly north toward Miami. Another hijacker guarded the cockpit door, Mr. Delionado said, while two others tied crew members up at the back of the plane. A fifth defendant, he said, warned passengers: “Don’t be heroes. Stay seated. We’re going to America.”

When one passenger tried to stop the hijackers from breaking down the cockpit door, they threatened him with a knife, Mr. Delionado said.

All the defendants confessed to the hijacking, but three confessions were rejected because F.B.I. agents did not read the men their Miranda rights. If convicted, the six, ages 21 to 31, could face 20 years to life in prison. They are charged with conspiracy, trying to take over a plane forcefully and assaulting a flight crew.

In a hijacking shortly after the one in March, the defendant, a Cuban architect, was convicted here and received the minimum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

Defense lawyers painted a sharply different version of the March 19 case in their statements, saying the crew had helped plan the hijacking. Mr. Morales’s lawyer, Stuart Abrams, said that the knives were on the plane before the passengers boarded and that the cockpit had landing charts for airports in Fort Lauderdale, Key West and Miami.

Mr. Abrams added that when the pilots radioed Cuba and the United States, they did not immediately report a hijacking, only that they had a “political situation,” he said.

The presiding judge, James Lawrence King of Federal District Court, ruled last month that defense lawyers could not refer to Cuba’s political or economic conditions.

Still, a defense lawyer, Reemberto Diaz, alluded to Cuban politics, asking, “Was this a hijacked plane or a freedom flight?” Mr. Diaz added that the United States had granted asylum to nearly half the passengers on the plane. “For once in their life,” he said, “they are free.”

The prosecutors objected, and Judge King agreed, saying, “We are not trying a political issue about freedom or lack thereof.”

The prosecution called the pilot, who said that while the defendants threatened him with a knife, they did let him radio air traffic controllers in Havana to report the hijacking.

The pilot, Daniel Blas Corra-Snchez, said there was not enough fuel to reach Miami, the defendants’ destination, and they let him fly here.

Cuba let Mr. Corra-Snchez and a steward on the flight attend the trial as prosecution witnesses. Defense lawyers were not sure whether Cuba would agree to witnesses they sought, the co-pilot and the flight mechanic. The defense also seeks permission to fly to Cuba and depose more witnesses who were not allowed to attend the trial.

In the last trial in the United States for hijacking a commercial plane, in 1997, three Cubans were acquitted of seizing a plane that ran out of fuel and crashed near Fort Myers.

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