Despite pleas for leniency, a federal judge sticks by the sentencing guidelines and hands down 20-to-24-year terms for six Cuban hijackers.
BY LARRY LEBOWITZ
Six Cuban hijackers who used knives to force a commercial jet from Havana to Key West in their quest for American freedom will spend at least 20 years in a U.S. prison before realizing their dream.
Four of the men -- Eduardo Mejia Morales, Yainer Olivares Samon, Yeudis Infantes Hernandez and Alvenis Arias-Izquierdo -- received 20 years in prison each. Federal air piracy laws require a minimum-mandatory sentence of 20 years and maximum of life.
''It's a bittersweet feeling to say we achieved the best we could get -- a 20-year sentence,'' said defense attorney Mario S. Cano, who represents Mejia Morales. ``That's the sad irony here: They made a flight for freedom and liberty and they're going to spend 20 years waiting for it.''
At the request of federal prosecutors, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King punished brothers Alexis Norneilla Morales and Miakel Guerra Morales more severely for lying on the witness stand during their December trial in Key West.
Alexis, who was a veterinarian in Cuba, and Miakel, who was a circus troupe bicycle stunt artist, each received a 24-year term.
''Four or five more years . . . it's an injustice,'' said their brother, Angel Morales, an electrician who arrived in South Florida three years ago after winning an exit-visa lottery. ``I don't understand it.''
While sympathetic to Cubans fleeing the Castro regime, federal prosecutors Harry Wallace and John Delionado said they sought life sentences because the hijackers endangered the lives of 37 passengers when the group took over the Cubana Airlines DC-3 on March 19, 2003.
''The public should rest assured that the result in this case sends a clear message: If you engage in violence to enter the United States, you will be prosecuted and held accountable for your actions,'' U.S. Attorney Marcos Jiménez said afterward.
Authorities said the hijackers, led by Alexis Morales, staked out flights, hid knives behind a security checkpoint at the Isle of Pines airport, crashed into the cockpit, put a knife at the pilot's throat and bound and gagged the rest of the crew.
Defense attorneys plan to appeal. They say they were prevented by the Cuban government from conducting a thorough investigation about their clients' respective roles in the hijacking and whether others inside Cuba participated in the plot.
The hijacking set off a chain reaction of other violent attempts to escape the island last spring, aggravating U.S.-Cuban relations and resulting in a harsh crackdown by the Castro government. Eleven days after the first hijacking, an architect toting two fake grenades forced another flight from Key West to Havana.
Adermis Wilson Gonzalez, who refused to believe U.S. and Cuban officials when they told him he was facing serious consequences if he commandeered the flight with 51 persons aboard, received a 20-year sentence in September.
The day after Wilson's hijacking, a group of men tried to divert a passenger ferry to Florida. Cuba summarily tried and executed three leaders of the plot.
While the six hijackers will be serving lengthy prison terms, their effort to flee the island will not go entirely for naught. Four of the hijackers' wives, who knew nothing of the plan, and two of their children, have started new lives in Florida.