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#3869: Ferry was hijacked by Haitian police, FBI says (fwd)


Published Thursday, May 25, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 Ferry was hijacked by Haitian police, FBI says BY SANDRA MARQUEZ GARCIA 

 Ten Haitian National Police officers allegedly commandeered a Haitian
ferry full of passengers at gunpoint and demanded the boat captain and
first officer take them to the United States so they could apply for
political asylum, the FBI said Wednesday. The U.S. government must now
decide whether to grant persecuted status to the officers -- or charge
them with a crime. In addition to the hijackers, two crew members have
also requested asylum citing fears of retribution if they return to
 Haiti. The vessel, identified as Gonave Enflech, a 120-foot ferry last
seen departing the picturesque fishing village of Pestel in southwestern
Haiti on May 16, was found by the U.S. Coast Guard at dawn Tuesday. The
boat became stranded in international waters 30 miles south of Andros
Island in the Bahamas after running out of fuel. Don Mueller, a
spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in
 Washington, said details of the officers' persecution claim were not
available. He said possible criminal proceedings would take precedence
over an asylum bid. ``If somebody is convicted of hijacking, they would
not be eligible for asylum,'' Mueller said. ``Asylum is not given to
people who are convicted of major felonies. I think there is a case or
two where people were charged with hijacking but were not convicted.
Every case is unique and different, and that is why every case is
 decided on a case-by-case basis.'' There are several cases involving
Cubans who have been been acquitted of hijacking charges and later
granted political asylum or not returned to Cuba: In December 1998, an
immigration judge in Bradenton granted political asylum to
 three Cubans who commandeered an airplane to escape Cuba, then crashed
it into the sea off Florida's Gulf Coast. In September 1997, a jury in
Washington acquitted former Cuban intelligence officer Jose Fernandez
Pupo of a plane hijacking charge after deciding the man fled for his
life. An immigration judge laterdenied his political asylum bid, but
refused to return him to Cuba, accepting his Miami lawyers' argument
that he would be tortured there. In December 1995, INS officials
released two Cuban men who a year earlier brandished a phony grenade to
take over a Havana commuter ferry -- helping trigger the mass exodus
that drove 30,000 rafters to the sea that summer.
 Passengers aboard the ill-fated Haitian ferry were transferred to two
U.S Coast Guard cutters 85 miles southeast of Florida where they were
being questioned Wednesday by two FBI agents and an immigration officer.
 Terry Nelson, a spokesman for the FBI in Miami, said there were
conflicting reports about the number of passengers on board. He
estimated between 97 and 121. The number of women and children was
unknown.Nelson offered an account of the routine ferry ride turned
harrowing journey: Theboat departed Port-au-Prince bound for
southwestern Haiti between 7 and 8 a.m. May 16. Around 5 p.m., a group
of 10 men dressed in plainclothes boarded the vessel in Pestel as
passengers. Once their true motives became known, panic broke out.
 ``They took the captain and first mate by gunpoint and tied them up and
 demanded to be taken to the United States for political asylum,''
Nelson said. ``The captain said, `We don't have enough fuel.' They said,
`We are going anyway.' '' Once at sea, the police officers suited up in
their uniforms. ``I don't know if that was to authenticate their claim
for political asylum or if it was to intimidate the passengers,'' Nelson
said.After six days, the boat became stranded. A passing freighter
spotted the ferry drifting aimlessly and alerted the Coast Guard.
 A search of the ferry led to the discovery of two handguns, Nelson
said. Marleine Bastien, president of Haitian Women of Miami, noted that
the ferry boat departed Haiti just days before Sunday's long-delayed
parliamentary and local elections. In the final weeks of the campaign,
about 15 people were killed in politically related attacks. But the
election was not disrupted by widespread violence as some had
anticipated. Bastien credited beefed-up security for the overall success
on election day and he called on Haitian authorities to keep up the
vigilance. ``It's puzzling,'' Bastien said of the alleged hijacking. ``I
think that the government has a responsibility so that law and order is
restored so that people won't risk their lives to come here. . . . They
did it for the elections. They need to continue those same measures.''