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Accused hijacker makes protest in Miami court over legal treatment

William Potts speaks to reporters outside Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, before boarding a plane to the U.S. November 6, 2013. R
William Potts speaks to reporters outside Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, before boarding a plane to the U.S. November 6, 2013. R

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - A former U.S. militant accused of hijacking a plane to Cuba almost 30 years ago appeared in federal court on Thursday and wasted no time registering a protest over his legal treatment.

William Potts was arrested at the Miami International Airport on Wednesday after deciding to fly back home from Havana to face justice.

Potts, 56, faces 20 years to life in prison if convicted on the U.S. charges of hijacking a Miami-bound Piedmont Airlines flight in 1984 and demanding it divert to Havana.

"With total respect, I have to protest to these proceedings," he told the court before taking the oath. The judge cut him off before he could elaborate on the nature of his protest.

"I'm a farmer, and I earn roughly 200 Cuban pesos (about $10) a month," he added when asked about his financial situation to determine if he qualified for a public defender.

Potts appeared to chuckle when U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia M. Otazo-Reyes asked whether he owned any stocks or bonds, and then he answered that he did not.

The U.S. indictment against Potts, also known by the aliases William Freeman and Lieutenant Spartacus, said the plane left from New York and that he handed a flight attendant a note claiming to have planted explosives on board.

Potts thought he would be welcomed in Cuba but was instead arrested when the plane arrived there. He was convicted of air piracy and served 13 years in a Cuban prison. After his release he stayed in Cuba, got married and fathered two young daughters who have lived in the United States since 2012.

Before leaving Havana on Wednesday, Potts told reporters he wanted "closure" after so many years as a fugitive, adding he was hoping for "a just solution."

He said he expected the United States to take into consideration the time he served in a Cuban prison.

"I committed a crime, paid my dues and that's it," he said.

Potts may not be so lucky, according to legal experts. Hijacking an aircraft in the United States and taking it to Cuba violates the laws of both countries and a prosecution by Cuba does not bar a subsequent prosecution by the United States, according to David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice.

"While not legally entitled to credit for the time he served in jail in Cuba, the judge could factor in the 13 years that he previously served in calculating a reasonable sentence," Weinstein said.

Potts is thought to be one of the last of more than a dozen members of the Black Panthers, a militant black nationalist group, who hijacked planes and are still active in Cuba. Others have returned home to face long prison terms or died. Cuba has regularly returned U.S. fugitives since 2006, but Washington says dozens remain in the country.

Potts is due to be arraigned at a bond hearing on November 13. ($1 = 1.0000 Cuban pesos)

(Editing by David Adams and Ken Wills)

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