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   Vol. 67/No. 46           December 29, 2003  
Florida court convicts Cuban hijackers
A jury in Key West, Florida, convicted six Cubans December 11 on charges of air piracy. They face a minimum of 20 years in prison, with sentencing scheduled for February 26. The six were found guilty of using knives and a hatchet to hijack a Cuban passenger plane en route from the Isle of Youth, off Cuba’s southern coast, to Havana on March 19.

Attorneys for the hijackers argued that the six men had been pawns in the staging of the hijacking in order to cover a “flight to freedom” by the crew and other passengers on board. The U.S. government holds that if a pilot is not under coercion and freely flies a plane to the United States no hijacking has been committed and no criminal charges can be brought.

Alexis Norneilla Morales, who admitted to being the organizer of the group, claimed that he had been approached by the copilot of the plane and an airport security guard a year in advance with a detailed plan to stage the hijacking. He also alleged that the airport security guard had furnished the weapons used to take over the plane.

The Cuban pilot and copilot, however, testified that they had never met the hijackers before the plane was commandeered and knew of no agreement to stage a hijacking of the aircraft. They testified that the assailants broke down the cockpit door, threatened the lives of passengers, and tied up other crew members in the rear of the plane.

Describing the assault on the crew, Daniel Blas Corría Sánchez, the plane’s pilot, explained how a knife was held to his throat. “I had to lean myself backward, and for an instant let go of the controls,” the pilot said on the stand. “If I had leaned forward, he would have cut my throat,” he added. Corría Sánchez said that when he told the hijackers there was not enough fuel to fly to Miami one of them told him to go any place, even land in the sea. The pilot suggested they could reach Key West, and was then allowed to inform Havana of the kidnapping in order to get flight coordinates to Key West.

Of the 31 passengers on the flight, 14—some of them family members of the hijackers—have been allowed by Washington to remain in the United States. Two of them were called as witnesses for the prosecution. The other passengers and all of the crew members returned to Cuba.This is the second conviction of individuals involved in a string of seven hijackings of Cuban airliners and boats between August 2002 and April of this year. Cuban authorities said they uncovered evidence of plans for 29 additional hijackings, which they have foiled.

In order to stem the string of hijackings, Havana began to take harsh measures. After a rapid trial and conviction, three ringleaders involved in the armed hijacking of a Cuban ferry boat were executed on April 11. Eleven men in the group, armed with a handgun and knives, had taken over the boat carrying 29 passengers.

During the same period 75 opponents of the Cuban Revolution were arrested and convicted on charges of collaborating with and taking funds from U.S. government officials in Cuba to advance the U.S. rulers’ economic war against the Caribbean nation.

Washington seized upon these arrests, and the executions of the three hijackers, to organize an international campaign of threats against Cuba and to tighten existing sanctions.

Since October the U.S. government has stepped up scrutiny of passengers on the roughly 30 charter flights from the United States to Cuba. Juan Zarate of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said that 55 passengers have been denied travel to Cuba because they did not have proper documents or the agency’s approval. OFAC is responsible for enforcement of the travel restrictions and prosecution of those who violate them.

Zarate told the Washington Post that officers of the Department of Homeland Security are also being trained to look for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba via third countries, including Canada and Mexico. Just days before the convictions of the six hijackers, a White House-appointed commission charged with coordinating U.S. sanctions against Cuba held its first meeting. The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba is co-chaired by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The U.S.-orchestrated campaign against Cuba notwithstanding, Havana’s policy of zero tolerance for hijackers has paid off. No successful hijackings have taken place since April.

In mid-July, a boat belonging to the Cuban company GeoCuba was hijacked in Camaguey with 15 people on board. It was pursued by the Cuban Coast Guard until it reached Bahamian waters. Because the boat was originally headed for the United States the Cuban government requested it be returned to Cuba along with the hijackers. After initially claiming the boat had been stolen and not hijacked, U.S. authorities admitted after interviews with 15 passengers that the vessel “may have been hijacked.”

On July 21, James Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, issued a statement to the Cuban media discouraging hijackings. The same day the U.S. Coast Guard returned the 15-person group that had been on the GeoCuba, including three guards who had been overpowered by the hijackers.

The hijackings are fueled to a large degree by Washington’s hostile policies toward the Cuban Revolution. These include restrictions on the number of visas that are issued by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to Cubans who apply to immigrate to the United States. At the same time Washington has for decades encouraged Cubans to cross the 90-mile Florida straits by any means through the application of the Cuban Adjustment Act.

Approved by Congress in 1966, the Cuban Adjustment Act provides virtually automatic asylum and expedited residency to any Cuban who lands on Florida’s shores regardless of crimes they may have committed to get there. It is part of Washington’s long-term goal of overthrowing the Cuban revolutionary government.  
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