10/27/13 - The Guardian - American 'revolutionary hijacker' in Cuba dreams of return to US
William Potts burned with a desire to change the world, but nothing turned
out the way he planned.
Dreaming of helping the struggle to uproot global oppression, he dropped
out of college, became a Muslim and went to join the Namibian freedom
movement. However, he got stuck in Liberia, half a continent away.
So he returned to the US and, in 1984, concealed a .25-calibre pistol in a
plaster cast and hijacked a plane to Cuba, among the last of dozens of
self-styled revolutionary hijackings. To Potts's surprise, Cuban
authorities didn't offer him guerrilla training. He was convicted of air
piracy and imprisoned for more than 13 years.
Now, 29 years after he changed into a black beret and leather jacket in a
toilet mid-flight and hijacked the plane carrying more than 100 people from
Newark to Miami, Potts is optimistic that he will soon be heading home. He
said on Friday that US officials in Cuba were processing a passport
application he submitted earlier in the week and they had told him it could
be completed in a matter of weeks.
While he faces virtually certain arrest upon his return, he believes that
the time he has served in Cuba will allow him to avoid a lengthy second
"Some people believe I should spend the rest of my life behind bars, but
that's not my position. I was sentenced in a recognised court of law to 15
years in prison. I did the crime, I did the time," Potts said. "I don't
expect to pay two times for a crime I already paid 15 years for."
Potts said going home would help him move beyond what he has acknowledged
was a mistake that put dozens of passengers' lives at risk and separated
him from his family in the US in a way that has become increasingly painful
as he has aged.
Prosecutors in Florida, where Potts was also indicted for air piracy, did
not respond to requests for comments on his case. The US Interests Section
in Cuba declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but noted that
"through our missions overseas, US citizens travelling or residing overseas
are accorded a full range of passport services".
Cuba has granted political refugee status, along with free housing,
healthcare and other benefits, to dozens of fugitives like Potts - many of
them black militants and other leftists who fled to the island from the US
in the 1960s and 70s. Many are believed to remain in Cuba, including
several who are among the America's most-wanted fugitives.
The US and Cuba signed a 1971 agreement under which each government agreed
to prosecute hijackers or return them to the other country. Periodic
tensions with Washington have pushed Cuba to suspend the deal several
times, but the communist government stopped giving new arrivals sanctuary
in 2006, returning a handful of Americans who fled to avoid prosecution in
recent years. The US still labels Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism,
largely because of its sheltering of fugitives.
"They accuse Cuba of harbouring terrorists," Potts said. "I happen to be a
terrorist who wants to go back to face the charges pending against me."
Potts, 56, said he was buoyed by the case of a fellow hijacker who returned
to the US and saw a long sentence reduced because of time served in Cuba.
However, it is far from clear if Potts has correctly assessed his legal
Other fugitives returning from Cuba have been aggressively prosecuted.
American citizen Luis Armando Peña Soltren returned from Cuba in October
2009 to face charges of conspiracy to commit air piracy, interfering with a
flight crew and kidnapping in a case linked to Puerto Rican independence
Peña Soltren pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Potts lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment with a neatly kept front
garden in a cold war-era apartment block on the outskirts of Havana. He is
divorced from the mother of his two children, a mathematics professor, but
they still live together. The US Interests Section in Cuba gave passports
to their daughters, aged 12 and nine, last year and Potts sent them to live
with his family in the Atlanta area.
He said he was still hopeful about changing the world and intends to raise
money in the US to start a Muslim community farm in Cuba.
"I'm not the same person I was," Potts said. "The time has come to bring
this thing to an end. I know it's a risk (to go back to the US), but it's a
necessary risk. I'm hoping that something good can come of this."
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