By Daniel Alvarenga
LISBON (Reuters) - A lawyer representing a convicted U.S.-born murderer and alleged hijacker arrested in Portugal last week after 41 years on the run argued on Thursday the man should not be extradited to the United States where he feared he would be killed in jail.
The lawyer, Manuel Luis Ferreira, told Reuters that the 68-year-old George Wright had legally assumed a new identity, first as a Guinea Bissau citizen and later as a Portuguese citizen named Jorge dos Santos and should serve the remainder of the sentence in Portugal.
"I have no doubt that if he goes back (to the United States) he will die. He is very afraid," Luis Ferreira said, adding that Wright believed he would be unfairly treated by the FBI after a 1972 plane hijacking in which FBI agents had to deliver ransom money wearing only swimsuits.
"He believes they think that he tried to humiliate them, that they'll make an example out of him ... he believes that he will be killed in prison," the lawyer said, adding that Wright's health was frail.
Wright was convicted in 1963 for the murder of gas station owner Walter Patterson during an armed robbery in Wall, New Jersey. While serving his 15 to 30-year sentence, he escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1970.
The FBI linked him to the commandeering, along with four other hijackers with children in tow, of a passenger plane from Detroit that was forced to land in Algeria in 1972, and said he used to be a member of the Black Liberation Army - a black-nationalist militant group. He was never formally charged with the hijacking.
"He thinks some group in the prison would kill him in retaliation for past militancy and the FBI will not do anything to prevent it," the lawyer said.
As for the prospects of the defense case, Luis Ferreira said he was "very optimistic."
According to Portuguese law, citizens convicted abroad can serve their sentences in Portugal if their family resides there. Wright has a Portuguese wife and two children, who the lawyer said had known very little of his criminal past.
"I think that Jorge is a Portuguese citizen, I have no doubt about that. If he needs to answer any questions it must be here in Portugal," he said, adding that he would not stop if his defense is not upheld. "I will go to the Constitutional Court, and the Supreme Court, and to the International Human Rights Court if necessary."
He said Wright was a very calm man who enjoyed reading books in Portuguese.
"He is a different man, 40 years later, not the guy who they say was like a terrorist ... He has rehabilitated himself, it wasn't the system."
While four other hijackers were arrested and convicted in France in 1976, Wright remained at large until he was arrested by Portuguese police on the outskirts of Lisbon, tracked down with the support of the FBI and other U.S. authorities after he tried to contact his relatives in the United States.
He is held without bail by Portuguese authorities and appeared before a judge for an initial extradition hearing last week.
Wright's Guinea Bissau identity was legally granted to him in the 1980s by the country's government, which was supportive of black liberation movements.
(Additional reporting by Magda Wallmont, editing by Andrei Khalip)