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Cuban Man Convicted by Florida Jury of Hijacking Plane from Havana to US - 2003-07-11

A jury in Key West, Florida has convicted a Cuban man of hijacking a plane from Cuba to the United States earlier this year. In a rare move, the Cuban government allowed employees of Cuba's state-owned airline to travel to the United States to testify in the case.

Aldemis Wilson Gonzalez could face up to 20 years in prison when he faces a sentencing hearing in September. A jury took less than one hour to find him guilty of hijacking an Antonov-24 domestic airlines flight carrying more than 40 passengers and crew on March 31.

Witnesses testified that Gonzalez took control of the plane as it began its descent to Havana International Airport after a short flight from the Isle of Youth. Brandishing two grenades, which were later determined to be duds, Gonzalez held the passengers and crew hostage on the ground in Havana for 15 hours where he demanded the plane be given enough fuel to fly to the United States.

After both Cuban President Fidel Castro and the senior U.S. diplomat in Cuba, James Cason, failed to persuade Gonzalez to end the hijacking, the plane was allowed to depart for the United States, where it was escorted by U.S. fighter jets to Key West, Florida about 150 kilometers from Cuba.

U.S. and Cuban officials have declined to comment on the case but Cuban officials allowed both the plane's pilot and a steward to travel to the United States to testify against Gonzalez. Speaking in Miami, U.S. Federal Prosecutor Marcus Jimenez, who will oversee Gonzalez's sentencing hearing, called the verdict necessary to prevent violence.

"While the situation in Cuba is very sad, it is completely unacceptable to hijack a plane or to commit any other act of violence in an attempt to enter our country," he said.

Ten passengers on board the plane, including Gonzalez's wife and young son, sought asylum in the United States following the hijacking but most on board decided to return to Cuba.

The incident marked the second time in two weeks that Cubans had hijacked planes to the United States. Six other Cuban men are currently awaiting trial in a second hijacking case.

Two days after the Gonzalez hijacking, an armed group hijacked a ferry in Havana harbor and attempted to flee to the United States. However Cuban officials foiled that hijacking and three of the hijackers were executed after a brief trial, sparking condemnation from governments and human rights groups.