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Six Cubans Convicted in Plane Hijacking

December 12, 2003

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) _ A group of Cubans failed to convince a jury they were taking a ``freedom flight″ with the crew’s cooperation when they hijacked a passenger plane to Florida in March.

The six men were convicted Thursday of federal hijacking charges, which carry a mandatory 20 years in prison, with a possible life sentence. One of the men bowed his head when the verdicts were read, and another grew teary-eyed.

``Our clients are extremely heartbroken and disappointed, but they still have faith in the system and that the appellate process will carry them through,″ defense attorney Mario Cano said.

Prosecutor Harry Wallace said the verdict ``sends a clear message that although we’re sympathetic to people wanting to come to the United States, we will not tolerate the use of violence or threat of violence to do it.″

In Havana, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said the conviction was a ``positive signal, an inevitable decision consistent with the idea of combatting terrorism.″

According to testimony, the hijackers broke down the cockpit door March 19, held a knife to the throat of the DC-3 pilot and directed the Cuban domestic flight to the United States with 37 people aboard. Fourteen people besides the hijackers opted to stay in the United States after it landed at Key West.

The alleged ringleader, Alexis Norniella Morales, and his brother Miakel Guerra Morales testified that everyone on board was in on the plot, with five knives used only as props.

They said it was a ``freedom flight″ staged in such a way that the crew members could cooperate and still return home to Cuba without coming under suspicion.

The pilot took the stand and denied he was in on the plot.

The prosecutor called the explanation ``laughable″ and denied the trial was about Cuba, Fidel Castro or communism.

Havana has blamed the string of hijackings on the United States, saying it encourages people to risk their lives by granting them asylum if they reach U.S. shores. Cuba executed three men who hijacked a ferryboat in April.

The Cuban government cooperated with U.S. investigators in this case and blocked defense efforts to explore the Cuban portion of the flight.

Convicted along with the two brothers were Neudis Infantes Hernandez, Alvenis Arias Izquierdo, Yanier Olivares Samon and Eduardo Mejia Morales.