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Cuban detainees' hope for fair trial

Rodrigo Acuña |  03 October 2007

Cuba Five political prisonersOutside the alternative media, last month saw nearly no coverage of the incarceration in the United States of Cuban agents Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando Gonzáles and René Gonzáles.

Now into their ninth year of imprisonment, the Cuban Five — as they are otherwise known — are serving a variety of sentences that include convictions for conspiracy to commit espionage and homicide. By most credible accounts, the Cubans are in prison — some on life sentences — for political reasons and not because they have broken any serious laws, other than overstaying their visas.

The current saga began in 1997 when nearly a dozen bombs struck Havana. With hotels, restaurants and nightclubs targeted, one explosion at the Copacabana Hotel wounded 11 people and killed Italian tourist Fabio di Celmo.

Experience has taught the Cuban government that when bombs explode in Havana, or failed assassination plots against Fidel Castro take place, the first place to look is Miami — the haven for ex-patriots who fled after dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown in 1959. And there is one man who has stood out for his use of terrorism to overthrow Castro; CIA-trained Luis Posada Carriles.

If there were any doubts, on July 12 1998 in New York Times, Carriles admitted to paying a Salvadorian mercenary to carry out the 1997 attacks in Havana, including the bombing which killed di Celmo. When asked if he had regrets for the murder, Posada Carriles replied in the negative: 'I sleep like a baby ... It is sad that someone is dead, but we can't stop ... That Italian was sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time.'

When it was clear that Cuban exiles in Miami where behind the new wave of attacks in Havana, Castro's government took two courses of action.

Cuba Five political prisoners The first was to dispatch Castro's personal emissary, Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, to request US president Bill Clinton address the issue of terrorism by Cuban exiles. The second was to monitor the activities of Posada Carriles and 60 other emigrés, many whom belong to paramilitary organisations. This was the role of the 'Cuban Five'.

For its part, the Clinton administration seemed to have displayed some willingness to address Cuba's concerns. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) agents travelled to Havana and exchanged information with local officials regarding the bombing that had taken place. But unfortunately, like many of Clinton's policies towards the Caribbean island, incompetence or sheer cynicism won the day. Instead of addressing the threat posed by the Miami emigrés, the FBI arrested the Cuban Five in September 1998 in Miami using information provided by Havana.

The court case which then unfolded was bizarre.

In the initial proceedings, according to defence lawyer José Pertierra, the prosecution stated:

'We arrested these five men and confiscated 20,000 documents from their computers, but ladies and gentlemen of the jury none of these 20,000 documents contain a single page of classified information.'

Instead, US authorities claimed that the Five had conspired to commit espionage — predominantly based on the fact that Antonio Guerrero was employed in a metal shop in the Boca Chica Navy Training Base.

The charge of conspiracy to commit homicide was established around an incident which occurred in 1996 over the Florida Straits, where Cuban MiGs shot down two Cessna aircraft belonging to the Miami based group Brothers to the Rescue (BR).

Although the exact location of the downed aircraft — which left three individuals dead — is contested by both Cuba and the US, prosecutors claimed that the Five were in part responsible for the pilots' deaths because they had relayed information to Havana on the actions by BR.

Why Cuba would need undercover agents in Miami to perform the tasks of their air radar systems remains in question, as do most aspects of the prosecution's case.

Reviewing the legal proceedings, a United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions noted that 'the trial did not take place in the climate of objectivity and impartiality which is required in order to conclude on the observance of the standards of a fair trial'.

Noting that the Cuban nationals were unjustly detained for 17 months in solitary confinement — a point also raised by Amnesty International — the UN report also documented that the Five's lawyers were denied the opportunity to study all the available evidence before US authorities invoked the Classified Information Protection Act.

Moreover, in August 2005, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta quashed the convictions of the Five. They ruled that the Cubans did not obtain a fair trail in Miami and acknowledged that the defence had produced evidence that revealed terrorist actions by Cuban emigré groups in the US. This included the role played by Posada Carriles who was referred to as a terrorist.

The incumbent Bush administration however had other ideas about the case and through its Solicitor General appealed to all 12 judges of the Eleventh Circuit. A year later they nullified the decision of the three-judge panel.

With more legal entanglements moving the case back and forth the latest appeal by the Five has been rejected. It seems the case will remain unresolved for some time yet.

However, with international pressure mounting for the release of the Five — which includes eight Noble Prize winners and six British MPs — Washington's double standards on terrorism regarding Cuba seem all too apparent.

A clear indication of this is that despite the further evidence of Carriles' involvement the US refuses to extradite him to Cuba or Venezuela for trail over his role the 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner, which left 73 people dead.

Leaving aside what one may think of the government in Havana, there can be few doubts that since 1959 almost every US administration — directly or through the Miami exiles — has seen Cuban civilians as 'fair game' in their efforts to overthrow Castro. Cuban estimates of the number of victims of terrorism are 3,478 killed and 2,099 wounded.

If the Democrats win office next year, will a different approach to US-Cuban relations be embraced? Current reality leaves the Cuban Five incarcerated.

 



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