Court upholds U.S. man's sentence in 1968 Cuba hijacking

NEW YORK, Nov 27 (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld the prison sentence of a man who turned himself in to authorities more than 40 years after participating in an airplane hijacking, but said he is a “worthy candidate” for a pardon.

Luis Armando Pena Soltren, a U.S. citizen, spent more than 40 years in Cuba as a fugitive after taking part in the 1968 hijacking of a Pan Am flight. He surrendered to U.S. authorities in 2009 and eventually pleaded guilty. In January 2011, Pena Soltren was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

On Wednesday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York said that the lower court had properly taken all relevant factors into account when sentencing Pena Soltren. The judges, however, expressed some measure of sympathy for the defendant.

“There seems to be no reason to question his genuine remorse and his otherwise unblemished record of service to family and community,” the decision said. “Pena Soltren is eligible for parole after five years. He is a worthy candidate for that relief, or for a pardon, notwithstanding that he can find no basis for relief in this court.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which prosecuted Pena Soltren, declined to comment.

Pena Soltren’s lawyer, James Neuman, was not immediately available to comment.

The ruling marked the second time that the appeals court has weighed in on Pena Soltren’s sentence. Last year, the court vacated his initial 15-year sentence because it did not include the possibility of parole. The lower court judge, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan, then resentenced him to 15 years and added the possibility of parole.

The hijacking took place on Nov. 11, 1968, when Pena Soltren, then 25, and two other men boarded Pan Am Flight 281 from New York to Puerto Rico.

After approximately an hour and a half, Pena Soltren used a knife and a gun to threaten a flight attendant and force the pilots to change course and fly to Cuba.

Dozens of planes were hijacked from the United States to Cuba during the Cold War as tensions with Cuban President Fidel Castro intensified. Some hijackers aimed to make political statements, while others sought asylum in Cuba or ransom payments from Washington.

The 2nd Circuit’s ruling comes a week after a federal judge in Miami denied bail for a former Black Panther charged with hijacking a U.S. plane and forcing it to fly to Cuba in 1984.

William Potts, 56, returned to the United States from Cuba earlier this month to face charges stemming from his participation in the hijacking of a Piedmont Airlines flight. He was convicted in Cuba, where he spent a total of 16 years in prison before his release more than a decade ago.

The Pena case is U.S. v. Luis Armando Pena Soltren, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, No. 12-4755. (Editing by Jan Paschal)