Cuban avoids death sentence in bloody hijack bid

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HAVANA, Sep 19 (Reuters) A Cuban army sergeant who shot and killed a soldier and an officer in an attempt to hijack a plane to the United States has been sentenced to life in prison, a rights group said today.

The Cuban military court's decision to avoid the death penalty in this case suggests acting President Raul Castro is reluctant to use capital punishment, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation said.

Four years ago, three civilians who hijacked a Havana ferry in a failed bid to flee Cuba in which no one was hurt were executed by firing squad.

Sgt Yoan Torres, 21, received the life sentence for killing a guard to escape from an army base and shooting a lieutenant colonel in the cabin of Boeing 737 at Havana airport during the foiled hijack attempt on May 3.

Two other sergeants and a corporal involved in the escape bid received sentences ranging from life to 25 years. A civilian accomplice was handed a 15-year term.

The closed-door trial took place August 24-26 and the noncommissioned officers were informed of the sentences last week, the rights commission said in a statement.

Cuba has executed several thousand people since the 1959 revolution led by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, said the commission's spokesman, veteran rights activist Elizardo Sanchez.

''It is remarkable that death sentences have not been given in two case of serious state security crimes,'' said Sanchez, adding that he believes Raul Castro is more lenient than his brother.

Fidel Castro handed over power to Raul after undergoing life-threatening intestinal surgery in July 2006. He has not appeared in public since.

Capital punishment was abolished in Cuba in 1940 and reintroduced after Castro's 1959 revolution, when hundreds of members of the ousted right-wing dictatorship accused of rights abuses were shot.

Sanchez said he hoped Cuba will maintain a moratorium on capital punishment that had been in effect since 2000 and was broken by the 2003 executions.

The three executions led to widespread criticism of Cuba.

Along with a crackdown on dissent, the executions were followed by a three-year freeze in relations with the European Union.

Sanchez said more executions would undermine efforts to improve political ties between Cuba and Brussels spearheaded by Spain's socialist government.

He urged Cuba to commute sentences of 40 Cubans now on death row and abolish the death penalty.

REUTERS GL BST2336

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