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Published: Friday May 2, 2014 MYT 5:51:51 AM
Updated: Friday May 2, 2014 MYT 5:53:43 AM

Ex-Black Panther pleads guilty to kidnapping in 1984 hijacking

FORT LAUDERDALE Fla. (Reuters) - A former Black Panther, who returned voluntarily to the United States nearly 30 years after he hijacked a plane to Cuba, pleaded guilty to kidnapping on Thursday to avoid a more serious charge of air piracy and a minimum 20-year sentence, his lawyer said.

William Potts, 57, initially pleaded not guilty to charges of air piracy and kidnapping. He arrived in the United States in November to face federal charges after serving 13 years in a Cuban prison.

Potts told reporters before he left Havana he was seeking "closure," and hoped to persuade U.S. prosecutors to take into consideration the time he served in a Cuban prison.

A sentencing hearing is set for July 11, according to Potts' lawyer, public defender Robert Berube.

The kidnapping charges carry no mandatory minimum sentence, but a maximum of life in prison, leaving a federal judge to determine Potts' punishment.

Potts, also known by the aliases William Freeman and Lieutenant Spartacus, said he thought he would be welcomed in Cuba, but was instead put on trial and convicted.

After his release, Potts received Cuban residency, got married and fathered two daughters, who have lived in the United States outside Atlanta since 2012.

He is thought to be one of the last of more than a dozen members of the Black Panthers, a black nationalist group, who were living in Cuba. Others have returned home to face long prison terms or died.

Cuba has regularly returned U.S. fugitives since 2006, but the U.S. government says dozens remain in the Caribbean country.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and G Crosse)

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