Convicted of Murder, and Now Swept Up in U.S.-Cuba Shift
Ishmael Muslim Ali now lives a quiet life in Cuba, where he remains
wanted by the F.B.I. for aircraft piracy. Credit Cave 7 Productions
For more than 30 years, Ishmael Muslim Ali has lived a relatively full
and unremarkable life in Cuba. He taught English in the nation's public
schools, worked as a translator and raised a family — a quiet coda for
an international fugitive.
Or at least, that was the case until last month, when President Trump
announced a partial halt to relations with Cuba unless certain
conditions were met. Handing over Mr. Ali, who resides on the F.B.I.'s
most-wanted list for hijacking an American Airlines flight and fleeing
to Cuba to escape multiple life sentences for the murder of eight
people, is one of those conditions.
Mr. Trump's demands contained the usual requirements for Cuba: free and
fair elections, allowing a political opposition and opening up its
economy. But they also included a call for the extradition of all
American convicts who had fled to the island for asylum. Among them are
Assata Shakur, also known as Joanne Chesimard, who is wanted for
escaping from prison while serving a life sentence for the murder of a
New Jersey state trooper, and an estimated 70 others who have taken
refuge in the communist nation.
As to the threat of being sent home, Mr. Ali, 69, harbors no concern.
The Cuban government has already made it clear that the extradition of
those granted asylum is off the table — along with the other demands
laid out by the president.
"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
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
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
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.
"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
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
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
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."
A version of this article appears in print on July 9, 2017, on Page A4
of the New York edition with the headline: Convicted of Murder, and
Focus of U.S.-Cuba Shift. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe