Cuban prisoners get hearing in U.S. courts
by Mike Williams
Cox International Correspondent
August 19, 2007
Reprinted from Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Havana —- Cuba is not shy about celebrating its heroes, and none are more regularly praised than a group known here simply as "The Five." Billboards carry their faces, schoolchildren recite their biographies and broadcasters frequently update their status.
To U.S. prosecutors, however, the five Cuban men are foreign agents caught gathering intelligence on American soil. They were tried, convicted and sentenced to the long terms they are now serving in federal prisons.
The latest twist in their decade-long story unfolds Monday in a federal appeals court in Atlanta, where American attorneys for the Cubans will argue that the evidence used to convict them was insufficient, among other issues.
"On legal grounds, we're optimistic because we think we have a very strong case for appeal," said Roberto Gonzalez, a Cuban lawyer and brother of Rene Gonzalez, one of the imprisoned men. "But we believe the case has been manipulated for political purposes, so we don't have false expectations."
The case is rooted in the long history of troubled relations between Fidel Castro's communist Cuba and the United States.
Series of rulings
The Cubans admit the five men —- Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez, Ramon Labanino and Gerardo Hernandez —- were sent to Miami as Cuban agents. But the mission, they insist, was to infiltrate Cuban exile extremist groups allegedly carrying out a series of bombings in Cuba aimed at throttling the island's vital tourism industry.
The bombings included one in which an Italian tourist was killed.
"These men uncovered plans of anti-Cuban terrorist groups operating in Miami, not U.S. government secrets," said Ricardo Alarcon, head of Cuba's National Assembly. "Penetrating a terrorist group in order to avert an attack can't be equated to espionage."
Prosecutors, however, convinced the jury in a 2001 trial in Miami that the men were part of a Cuban spy ring called "The Wasp Network" engaged in a conspiracy to steal U.S. secrets. They also claimed Hernandez provided intelligence that aided the Cubans in the 1996 shoot-down of two small private planes sent by an exile group toward Cuba to spot rafters and drop leaflets over the island. Four men were killed in the incident.
The five Cubans were sentenced to terms ranging from 15 years to life.
They appealed, and in 2005 a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed the convictions, saying the trial should have been moved from Miami, where widespread anti-Castro sentiments made a fair trial impossible.
A few months later, however, a majority of the full 11th Circuit ruled the venue was proper and reinstated the convictions, but sent the case back to the three-judge panel on other appeal issues, the subject of the hearing on Monday.
Cuban officials blast the government's case, calling it an example of the Bush administration's hypocrisy. America, they say, claims to be fighting terrorism, yet it arrested and tried the men for protecting their country against terrorist groups bent on doing violence in Cuba.
Alarcon pointed to the recent case of a former FBI analyst convicted of passing secret documents to the Philippine government.
"This guy got 10 years for stealing papers stamped 'Top Secret,'" he said. "In the case of The Five, generals from the U.S. military who reviewed the evidence testified that there was not a single piece of paper related to U.S. national security involved, yet the sentences are from 15 years to multiple life terms."
Cuban relatives wait
Not surprisingly, exile groups in Miami insist the trial was fair and the sentences just.
"For our community it's a clear-cut case," said Camila Ruiz, a spokeswoman for the Cuban-American National Foundation, one of the major exile groups. "These people were sent by the Cuban government to engage in espionage and some of them were involved in the murder of innocent U.S. citizens."
In Cuba, every step of the case is reported on state-run newscasts, while top officials sprinkle references to The Five into nearly every speech. Relatives of the men often attend state functions and are made available for visiting reporters.
Mirta Rodriguez, 75, whose son Antonio Guerrero, 49, was sentenced to life plus 10 years, says she will never give up hope.
"We have faith in these judges, that they will see the injustice," she said. "It is an injustice based on hatred, making these men suffer for fighting for their cause."
While some family members have been allowed to visit the imprisoned men, U.S. officials have repeatedly rejected visa applications by other family members.
"I have not seen my husband in seven years," said Olga Salanueva, wife of Rene Gonzalez. "They say I am a danger to U.S. security. That's a joke. I was in the house when Rene was arrested. If I was a danger, they should've arrested me then."