updated 12/11/2003 6:28:31 PM ET 2003-12-11T23:28:31

Six Cubans accused of hijacking a passenger plane to Florida were convicted Thursday after failing to convince a jury that it was actually a "freedom flight" undertaken with the crew's cooperation.

The federal hijacking charges carry a mandatory 20 years in prison, with a possible life sentence.

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

One of the six men bowed his head when the verdicts were read, and another grew teary-eyed.

"Our clients are extremely heartbroken and disappointed, but they still have faith in the system and that the appellate process will carry them through," defense attorney Mario Cano said.

Prosecutor Harry Wallace said the verdict "sends a clear message that although we're sympathetic to people wanting to come to the United States, we will not tolerate the use of violence or threat of violence to do it."

37 people diverted
According to testimony, the hijackers broke down the cockpit door, held a knife to the throat of the DC-3 pilot and directed the Cuban domestic flight to the United States with 37 people aboard. Fourteen people besides the hijackers opted to stay in the United States after it landed at Key West.

Cuba after the revolutionThe alleged ringleader, Alexis Norniella Morales, and his brother Miakel Guerra Morales testified that everyone on board was in on the plot, with five knives used only as props.

They said it was a "freedom flight" staged in such a way that the crew members could cooperate and still return home to Cuba without coming under suspicion.

The pilot took the stand and denied that he was in on the plot.

The prosecutor called the "freedom flight" explanation "laughable" and denied that the trial was about Cuba, Fidel Castro or communism.

Cuba blames Washington
Havana has blamed the string of hijackings on the United States, saying it encourages people to risk their lives by granting them asylum if they reach U.S. shores. Cuba executed three men who hijacked a ferryboat in April.

The Cuban government cooperated with U.S. investigators in this case and blocked defense efforts to explore the Cuban part of the flight.

Three of the defendants pursued a different line of defense from the "freedom flight" claim, arguing that prosecutors did not have enough proof to tie them to a crime after their confessions were thrown out because FBI agents had not told them they had the right to remain silent.

Convicted along with the two brothers were Neudis Infantes Hernandez, Alvenis Arias Izquierdo, Yanier Olivares Samon and Eduardo Mejia Morales

Family members stood somberly outside the courthouse after the verdict, some shedding tears.

Angel Norniella Morales, a brother of two of the convicted men, said he was "destroyed" by the verdicts.

"I'm in a state that I can't talk about it right now," Morales said.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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