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Hijacking witness apparently defects

The flight attendant testifies against six Cubans, who were convicted, then escapes government watchers.

Associated Press
Published December 21, 2003

MIAMI - A flight attendant who came to the United States to testify against six men accused of hijacking a plane to Florida has not returned to Cuba, attorneys said Friday.

Abilio Hernandez Garcia, 24, was being watched by senior representatives of the North American Directorate of Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Relations, whose mission was to prevent the man from defecting.

But he somehow got away Dec. 12, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Saturday.

Hernandez Garcia apparently escaped his watchers after the six Cubans accused of hijacking a passenger plane were convicted.

They failed to convince a jury that it was a "freedom flight" undertaken with the crew's cooperation.

The March 19 hijacking was the first in a string of air and boat hijackings that strained relations between the United States and Cuba.

Cuba accused the United States of encouraging the hijackings.

Mario S. Cano, attorney for one of the hijackers, said Hernandez Garcia's apparent defection would help the six defendants in their appeals for a new trial.

His disappearance "confirms the defense's position all along, that the crew was in on it," Cano told the newspaper.

"And now, here's the first one to stay."

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Harry C. Wallace Jr. and John Delionado faxed a letter to defense attorneys Friday, saying in part that information "indicates that Mr. Hernandez Garcia stands by the testimony given in this matter under oath."

During the trial, Hernandez Garcia testified that he was in the passenger compartment when "I was grabbed from behind. A knife was placed to my throat."

He denied being part of a "freedom flight."

Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said he thinks Hernandez Garcia possesses a visa.

It's unknown, though, whether Hernandez Garcia has formally requested political asylum.

Several witnesses sought by the defense during the trial were not allowed to travel from Cuba, because they were deemed to be defection risks.

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