KEY WEST, Fla. – American officials denied that Cubans who hijack planes to the United States are being treated leniently, as the second Cuban airliner in as many weeks was forced to land in Key West.
The plane was diverted Tuesday to Key West International Airport during an ordeal spent largely at a Havana airport, where a man carrying two fake grenades demanded that the passenger plane be refueled to reach the United States. He released 31 passengers and crew before surrendering in Florida.
Adermis Wilson Gonzalez, 33, was taken into federal custody and is set to have his first court appearance Wednesday afternoon in Key West. U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez said Gonzalez would be charged with hijacking, which carries a sentence of 20 years to life in prison.
Another Cuban airliner was hijacked to Key West on March 19, a day after the communist government began a crackdown on the island's dissidents.
Cuban officials said the U.S. legal system was lenient toward six suspects in the earlier hijacking, emboldening Gonzalez. A judge granted the suspects bail on air piracy charges, angering the Cuban government. But prosecutors appealed the decision and the suspects remain in jail.
"We are not lenient on terrorists and those who commit crimes of violence," Jimenez said in Miami. "If anyone, including the Cuban government, thinks we're going to be lenient on this defendant because he is Cuban, they are wrong."
In the latest hijacking, the Cuban Airlines AN-24 departed late Monday from the small Isle of Youth, southwest of Cuba's main island. The plane was forced to land in Havana because it didn't have enough fuel to make it to the United States, Cuban authorities said.
During the standoff in Havana, as many as two dozen passengers, including a woman holding a small child, jumped from an open rear hatch into the arms of emergency workers.
The FBI said the plane, with the hijacker and 31 others remaining aboard, left Cuba despite attempts by U.S. Interests Section Chief James Cason to persuade the hijacker to surrender. Two F-16 Fighting Falcons from Homestead Air Force Reserve Base escorted the plane to Key West, said Maj. Ed Thomas of the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
The plane landed in Key West about 50 minutes after it took off from Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, about 110 miles away. Authorities found two fake grenades after using a bomb-sniffing dog to search the aircraft, Monroe County Sheriff Richard Roth said.
Federal authorities said Gonzalez was traveling with his wife and 3-year-old son. But FBI officials said the boy he was holding when he stepped off the plane wasn't his son.
Hector Pesquera, head of the FBI's South Florida office, said 24 passengers and seven crew members were on the plane when it landed in Key West. He said the passengers -- 11 men, 9 women and 4 children -- were likely be taken to a federal detention center near Miami after speaking to investigators.
Meanwhile, Ana Margarita Martinez, the ex-wife of a Cuban spy, obtained a court order Tuesday to seize the aircraft to partially pay a $27.1 million settlement she won against the Cuban government in 2001, according to the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. Deputies were preparing to serve the order Wednesday.
The judgment was awarded under an anti-terrorism law after Martinez claimed she was used as a political pawn by her ex-husband, Juan Pablo Roque, and the Cuban government.
The Miami woman previously received permission to seize the first plane hijacked to Key West, along with a Cuban crop-duster that was flown by defectors to Key West in November.