By Angus MacSwan
MIAMI, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Friends and relatives of a young Cuban American flyer shot down by Cuban jet fighters over the Florida Straits in 1996 recalled in tearful testimony on Friday in a lawsuit against the Cuban government and air force a compassionate man with a bright future.
"He would never hesitate to give help to anyone who needed,'' Michael de la Pena, younger brother of Mario de la Pena, told the court.
Mario de la Pena, then 24, was one of four men killed in the attack by Cuban jets as they flew over the straits on Feb. 24, 1996, in two unarmed civilian planes searching for refugees on the sea.
The families of the three victims who were U.S. citizens are seeking $79 million in damages from the Cuban government and air force in the first case to reach trial under a 1996 U.S. anti-terrorism law.
If Cuba is held liable, the plaintiffs could be paid from frozen Cuban assets in the United States.
The suit says that the planes, of the Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos al Rescate) Cuban exile organization, were over international waters when they were shot down.
The Cuban government has chosen not to defend itself in Judge James Lawrence King's federal court, saying it does not recognize its authority.
Cuban Foreign Ministry spokesman Miguel Alfonso said in Havana on Thursday the legal action was based on an extraterritorial law and that courts in Florida were swayed by opposition to President Fidel Castro's Communist government.
Michael de la Pena, a 23-year-old University of Florida student, said his brother dreamed of being a pilot for a commercial airline. A student at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the nation's top aviation school, he had already secured an internship with American Airlines.
Flying "was one of his main reasons for living,'' his brother said. He was also a man of compassion, which led to his involvement with Brothers to the Rescue, he added. "He was shocked to see the situation with these rafters being stranded in the ocean.''
"I wouldn't say he was political. He was simply out to do what he enjoyed -- which was flying and helping people.''
Family and friends of the victims sobbed as he spoke. De la Pena's grandmother, Ester Rosal, 71, also wept in the witness box as she recalled her grandson. "Whenever he finished a flight he would call me on the phone and say 'Mama, what are you cooking.''
She described a close-knit, loving Cuban American family that had been traumatized by the death.
His priest, Father Felipe Estevez, said de la Pena was enthusiastic about his mission of saving lives. His work with Brothers to the Rescue had reaffirmed his Cuban roots, he said.
The other plaintiffs are the families of Carlos Alberto Costa, who was 29, and Armando Alejandre, 45. The fourth victim, Pablo Morales, was a Cuban exile.
Their lawyers have called the downing a callous act of premeditated murder that violated international law.
The Cuban government maintains the planes were inside its territory when they were shot down. It said warnings were issued and the incursions followed several dozen infringements by Brothers' planes over the past 18 months including buzzing Havana and dropping anti-Castro propaganda.