Convicted of Murder, and Now Swept Up in U.S.-Cuba Shift

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“They want their sovereignty respected,” Mr. Ali said in a telephone interview from Cuba, among his first public comments in three decades. “They are not going to let anybody bully them.”

He said he felt reassured that the Cuban authorities would not let him be sent back. After all, he said, Mr. Trump’s stance is a return to the old Cold War animosity that further hardened the Cuban government’s positions.

Beyond that, experts say that if the United States requests the extradition of its wanted criminals, Cuba may do the same. That could include a request for Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban with ties to the C.I.A. who lives in the United States but is wanted in Cuba for, among other things, his possible role in the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people.

Mr. Ali’s case stretches back to a turbulent time in American history, when political radicalism sometimes crossed into violence and hijackings were carried out dozens of times by dissidents and those evading the law. But his case continues to reverberate today, in the racially charged debate over American justice and the churn of relations between Cuba and America.

His case, along with that of his co-defendants, is the subject of a new documentary, “The Skyjacker’s Tale,” that was publicly released in recent days in New York.

The story began on Sept. 6, 1972, in St. Croix, in the United States Virgin Islands, when five masked individuals killed eight people at the Fountain Valley Golf Course. The murders rocked the small island and summoned a wave of law enforcement authorities from the United States to conduct the investigation.

The club, owned by the Rockefeller family, was frequented by the wealthy.

Soon after the murders, Mr. Ali, at the time known as Ronald Labeet, and four others were arrested and charged with the crime. The trial drew some of the most prominent liberal legal figures of the time, including William Kunstler, who defended the activists known as the Chicago Seven, as well as William Estridge, a lawyer for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The trial was over in less than a year, and eventually all of the men were convicted and given eight consecutive life sentences, plus 90 years, for the crimes. They were shipped to prisons in the continental United States, where three of them remain today. One of the men, Raphael Joseph, died in 1998, after being pardoned.

Mr. Ali, who was considered the leader of the group, and the others convicted maintained their innocence, arguing that their original trial was unfair. The film raises allegations that the suspects were tortured while in custody and that the judge presiding over the trial was biased because he had represented members of the Rockefeller family in his private practice.

After being convicted, Mr. Ali spit on the floor, and he and his accomplices struck out at the marshals who took them into custody, according to news accounts at the time.


The F.B.I. wanted poster for Mr. Ali, with a slight variation in the spelling of his first name. Mr. Ali now resides in Cuba. Credit Federal Bureau of Investigation

“Even at the trial, we were freaked out on an emotional basis,” he said. “We felt anger and desperation that we had a judge who didn’t care about the law.”

He added: “I would be different now. I would be with my defense in a much different way than I was at the time. But you can’t go back. Life isn’t that way. You have to go forward. The way we tried to get justice, how we acted in our desperation to seek justice, it don’t justify what was done to us.”

Mr. Ali’s conviction was upheld on appeal. And despite his proclamations of innocence, many feel his conviction, and the sentence, were justified.

“Proclaiming his innocence is ridiculous,” said Jeffrey Resnick, the chief prosecutor in St. Croix in 1972, who said there was overwhelming forensic evidence — as well as witness identification and confessions — of Mr. Ali’s guilt. “There is no doubt that they did it.”

Michael Joseph, the brother of Raphael Joseph, also believes Mr. Ali is guilty and published a book on the massacre in 2015.

Mr. Joseph, a lawyer in St. Croix, says the events he details in the book, which specify Mr. Ali’s role in the murders as well as that of his brother, are based on conversations he had with Raphael after he was pardoned.

In a presentation he gave on the book in 2015, he described Mr. Ali as a “wicked man” and claimed that he held a gun to his brother’s head to make him participate in the robbery-turned-massacre.

Following his conviction, Mr. Ali fought to be returned to St. Croix. After more than a decade in prison, he was sent back to the island, though only for proceedings in a civil suit he had filed, asserting that his rights had been violated when he was placed in solitary confinement for 90 days. He was awarded $12,000 in damages and placed aboard an American Airlines passenger plane bound for New York on New Year’s Eve in 1984.

Mr. Ali went to the bathroom repeatedly during the flight, complaining of stomach pains. On his final visit, he emerged with a handgun. (He did not say how he got it.) He then commandeered the plane and forced it to land in Havana. Upon landing, he was taken into custody.

The Cuban authorities convicted Mr. Ali of hijacking the plane, and sentenced him to 10 years in jail. He served seven years and got an early release for good behavior. Afterward, on the petition of Ms. Shakur, Mr. Ali says he was granted asylum, the beginning of an entirely new chapter for him.

“I have a quiet life. I’ve been married two times. I have kids and a family here,” he said. “I can’t complain. I’m really thankful to the Cuban government and the Cuban people for the way I have been treated.”

In Cuba, he says he has found a peace he never experienced in the United States, where race was an issue in every facet of life.

“The thing about race here is that it’s not an issue,” he said. “In the U.S., you are always aware of the race difference. There was always someone or something you had to be fighting against. Here in Cuba, that has been wiped out by the revolution for ages now. I just feel like another citizen here.”

His reasoning for participating in the film, he said, was to raise awareness about his co-defendants, arguing that they have spent their lives in prison for a crime they did not commit. It is not quite guilt that he feels for being the only one to escape, he says, but rather a consciousness that he is the only one who was able to live a real life.

“It hurts me every day to think about them,” he said. “When I think about my co-defendants, what they have suffered bothers me.”

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