Five convicted Cuban spies to make their latest plea for freedom
by Greg Bluestein
August 19, 2007
Reprinted from AP
ATLANTA - The five men convicted of spying on behalf of Fidel Castro's Communist government will ask a federal appeals court in Atlanta to reopen the case on Monday, as the so-called Cuban Five get another chance to make their case.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta will hear claims that the federal prosecutors made a range of procedural mistakes, including overemphasizing Castro during the 2001 trial. But the court has already tossed out an argument that anti-Castro bias robbed the five of a fair jury trial in Miami, which defense attorneys considered their strongest appeal.
Castro's government sent Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez to South Florida to gather information about anti-communist exile groups and send it back to the island using encrypted software, high-frequency radio transmissions and coded electronic phone messages.
They were sentenced to terms ranging from 10 years to life in December 2001, but the case has ping-ponged through the court system the last six years thanks to a round of appeals.
In August 2005, a three-judge federal panel in Atlanta tossed the verdicts, saying the five couldn't receive a fair trial because of anti-Castro bias in Miami. Exactly a year later, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the convictions, while also agreeing to hear oral arguments on Monday on other issues.
Among the arguments, the five men's lawyers contend the government committed misconduct by using "Castro's evil to argue for the defendants' criminal guilt." A 33-page legal brief details how prosecutors emphasized Castro by projecting a giant photo of his image for the jury and placing him at the top of a conspiratorial pyramid.
"Whether the ultimate truth supports the defendants or not, their defense was not political and it does not justify the extraordinary - indeed unprecedented - level of prosecutorial misconduct in the closing argument," the lawyers wrote.
The government contends its conduct was proper, and noted that most of what is being alleged as misconduct passed without objection at trial.
"This trial was conducted with great care and professionalism, and the lurid, rabble-rousing atmosphere appellants now describe was not observed, and not objected to, because it didn't exist," the government's 53-page brief read.
The "Cuban Five" were convicted of being unregistered foreign agents, and three were found guilty of espionage conspiracy for failed efforts to obtain military secrets. Hernandez was also convicted of murder conspiracy in the deaths of four Miami-based pilots whose small, private planes were shot down in February 1996 by a Cuban MiG in international waters off Cuba's northern coast.
Although the five men's so-called "Wasp Network" spy ring recovered no U.S. secrets, federal prosecutors argued for stiff penalties, saying they were well-trained spies who ran afoul of federal law by failing to inform the government of their presence.
Defense lawyers said they were trying to gather information that might prevent exile groups from waging more attacks, such as the bombings at Havana hotels that killed an Italian tourist in 1997.
Meanwhile, the men have become celebrities of sorts in Cuba. Their faces smile down from billboards on major highways, their poetry and humor is published in books, and even minor developments in their lives are recorded by Cuba's state media.
As Castro celebrated his 81st birthday last week, messages that the five hope to "celebrate all those future anniversaries together in our beautiful fatherland" were published in the Communist party newspaper Granma.
In the U.S., the Cuban five have prompted their share of supporters and opponents. The National Committee to Free the Five, based in San Francisco, has spawned more than 300 chapters worldwide, said Gloria La Riva, the group's coordinator.
"If the American people only knew of the mission of these men, they'd call for their freedom immediately," said La Riva. "They fought terrorism peacefully. They only monitored and reported. And that's what's so egregious about this case."
Camila Ruiz Gallardo, a spokeswoman for the Cuban-American National Foundation, a historically militant anti-Castro group that was one of the spy ring's targets, said she hoped Monday's arguments would be the final chapter of the case.
"They're grasping at straws. But that's the right people have in this legal system, and it's great that they have that right. Go ahead - let them exhaust every legal recourse," she said. "That's fine. In the end, justice will prevail."