New trial sought for 5 Cubans held in U.S.
'Los Cinco,' convicted in 2001 of spying for the Castro government, go before court in Atlanta
by Tim Harper
August 22, 2007
Reprinted from Toronto Star
WASHINGTON–In Havana they are known simply as "Los Cinco" – The Five – their names and revered words emblazoned on walls.
In the eyes of the U.S. justice system, they are spies and they are serving time in American prisons for their sins.
Now, nine years after their arrest, the so-called Cuban Five are back in the public eye, with a panel of judges in Atlanta preparing to rule on whether they deserve a new trial in this country.
Their case is wrapped in the rigid ideological war between Washington and Havana, the Bush administration's so-called "war on terror'' and a potential change of regime in Cuba.
The original prosecution argument when the five were convicted in 2001 elevated their crimes to such levels that U.S. government prosecutors said they were "bent on the destruction of America.''
The Castro regime instead has characterized the men as brave defenders of Cuba who tried to prevent terror attacks against Havana, and the ailing Cuban leader has accused the U.S. of hypocrisy for jailing them for fighting the Cuban equivalent of the war on terror.
That argument gained even more adherents in Cuba when the U.S. in May decided to release 79-year-old Luis Posada Carriles from jail, even though he is wanted in Cuba and Venezuela for his role in hotel bombings and allegedly orchestrating airline bombings from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s.
All five, Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero, Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez, were convicted in a Miami court in June 2001 of acting as unregistered foreign agents.
Three of them were also convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage by trying to infiltrate a naval air station in south Florida and the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Miami.
Hernandez was also convicted of conspiracy to murder in connection with the deaths of four Cuban exiles when two light aircraft were shot down by the Cuban air force over the Straits of Florida in 1996.
Hernandez was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, Guerrero and Labanino received life sentences, Fernando Gonzalez received 19 years and Rene Gonzalez 15 years.
None of the five dispute that they were working for the Castro government, but Richard Klugh says, "they were not here to harm the United States.''
Instead, he says, they were gathering intelligence to try to stem a violent assault on the Cuban tourist industry which was believed to be rooted in the exile community in Miami.
Klugh, a public defender in Miami, inherited this case simply by luck of the draw, but has been involved with it for eight years.
He takes no pleasure in seeing the case being used for propaganda purposes in Cuba.
"It's not something I promote,'' said Klugh. "It's not helpful for me to think that a victory for our legal system is a victory for Cuba.
"For me, a victory for our legal system is a victory for our legal system.''
None of the five ever laid a hand on a classified U.S. document, the defence says.
But they still pledge their fealty to Castro.
"On this 81st birthday, we desire for you health and vitality, that you have many more, and that we can celebrate all those future anniversaries together in our beautiful fatherland,'' Labanino wrote on Castro's 81st birthday earlier this month.
In an interview with the BBC last month, Hernandez denied any knowledge of the downing of the aircraft, and said he had been sent to the United States to defend his country against terrorist attacks from Cuban exiles in Miami.
"They are people who've got training camps there in paramilitary organizations and they go to Cuba and commit sabotage, bombs and all kinds of aggressions,'' he said.
"And they had impunity, so at a certain point Cuba decided to send some people to gather information on those groups and send it back to Cuba to prevent those actions.''
Hernandez accused Posada of masterminding a series of 1997 bombings in Cuba, something Posada has denied.
Lawyers for the five had always argued that the deck was stacked against the men in Miami, but lost their original bid for a change of venue.
"Every community has a certain orientation,'' said Klugh. "People in Toronto root for the Maple Leafs and people in Montreal root for the Canadiens.
"We didn't argue Miami was the wrong venue for political reasons, just an error in judgment to hold the trial there.''
This week's hearing in Atlanta was the third time courts in Georgia have taken on this case.
In 2005 a three-judge panel in Atlanta threw out the 2001 verdicts, saying it was impossible for the men to receive a fair trial amidst the anti-Castro sentiment in Miami.
Two months later, a full court overturned that ruling but agreed to hear another appeal based on evidence, not venue.