Miami lawyers defending hijackers blocked in Cuban airport
By Ann W. O'Neill
The Cuban government recently locked up in an airport lounge three Miami
lawyers who are defending clients in a hijacking case so they
could not talk to witnesses or see the crime scene, according to federal court documents.
The lawyers' court papers say they went through court and diplomatic
channels and obtained visas to travel to Cuba for three days in late
August. They planned to photograph the crime scene, an airport on the Isle of Youth, and to find witnesses who might help clear six men
accused of the March 19 hijacking of a chartered DC-3 flight.
Attorney Ana Jhones charged that the Cuban government "purposely and deliberately" thwarted the defense investigation.
The defense now is asking for help from its usual courtroom adversary,
the U.S. government, to bring Cuban defense witnesses to the federal courthouse
West for the Dec. 1 trial.
The court papers filed this month provide a glimpse of how legal rights
taken for granted in the United States can be complicated by international
in cases involving Cuba.
"Everything becomes politicized," said Miami lawyer Ira Kurzban, an international law specialist who is not involved in the hijacking case.
Still, in a criminal case, Jhones wrote in her court papers, there's
more at stake than politics. "While it is understood the country of Cuba
is a communist regime and
that the relationship between the two countries depends on the whim of its dictator, this unfortunate reality in no way diminishes the right to present a defense."
According to the court papers, the defense team traveled from Miami
to Havana on Aug. 26, and was to fly to the Isle of Youth early the next
morning. But the
Cuban government delayed their flight about nine hours. By the time they arrived at the airport in Nueva Gerona, the prosecutors, who flew separately in a U.S.
government plane, had finished their investigation and were leaving.
The airport was cleared. The defense team was held under armed guard for three hours and then sent back to Miami.
In his court papers, lawyer Mario Cano vividly described the lawyers' reception at the airport in Nueva Gerona:
"Group members actually were detained in a locked VIP lounge at the
airport ... ringed by black-uniformed shock troops from the Ministry of
the Interior, which
were armed with AKM assault rifles sporting fixed bayonets."
The lawyers and their investigators were "in essence under arrest,"
Cano wrote, adding they "could not have contact with anyone outside the
airport, nor could they
leave." They were fed sandwiches and soft drinks "to maintain the thin veneer of civility and nonintimidation."
George Fowler, a New Orleans lawyer with the Cuban American National
Foundation, said the lawyers' treatment in Cuba clearly illustrates why
their clients would
resort to extreme measures to flee.
"The people in Cuba are living under horrendous conditions," Fowler
said. "They have no civil liberties. They seek freedom like any normal
human being would seek
Fowler sees the hand of Fidel Castro in the aborted investigation: "The guy with the beard is controlling this whole scenario."
Politics at home also complicates the case.
There are 2 million Cuban-American voters across the country, Fowler
said, and as many as 600,000 in South Florida. For the most part, the community
staunchly Republican. But Cuban-Americans are growing angry and impatient with the Bush administration's lack of a forceful, consistent Cuba policy, Fowler said.
Amid a cluster of hijackings last spring, Cuban authorities criticized
the United States for not being tough enough on hijackers. An international
outcry was touched
off when three men who hijacked a ferry were returned to Cuba and promptly executed.
Marcos Daniel Jiménez, the U.S. attorney for South Florida, repeatedly
has said his office will vigorously prosecute hijackers to "send a message,
"a stance that is
not popular with the leaders of South Florida's Cuban-American community.
And so, on Dec. 1, Cuban-American eyes will be on Key West and the six
defendants: Alexis Norneilla Morales, 32; Eduardo Javier Mejía Morales,
Olivares Samon, 21; Neudis Infantes Hernández, 31; Alvenis Arias Izquierdo, 24; and Mikael Guerra Morales, 26.
They are charged with conspiracy, air piracy and interfering with a flight crew. If convicted, they could spend the rest of their lives in a U.S. prison.
Armed with long knives and a hatchet, the six men allegedly commandeered
the DC-3 with 31 passengers and six crewmembers on board as it began its
into Havana. One of the hijackers allegedly held a knife to the pilot's throat. Upon landing in Key West, the six accused hijackers threw their knives down on the
tarmac and surrendered.
The defense lawyers say their Cuban witnesses refuse to talk about the
case over the telephone. The nature of their testimony has not been disclosed,
defense has asked to discuss it behind closed doors with U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King.
In at least two skyjacking cases during the past five years, prosecutors
have brought Cuban government and airline officials to the United States
to testify. But
Kurzban said he's not aware of a skyjack defense team that was able to bring witnesses from Cuba.
Matt Dates, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said Thursday prosecutors expect to file a written response soon.
Ann W. O'Neill can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4531.
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