Hope for the Cuban Five

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

A poster of the Cuban Five at a government office in Havana. - ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP

A poster of the Cuban Five at a government office in Havana. - ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP

The Cuban government demands the immediate release of five Cubans jailed in the United States in 1998 on espionage charges after a Federal Appeals Court overturns their convictions and sentences by a Florida court.

ON August 9, a Federal Appeals Court in the United States overturned the convictions and sentences of five Cubans imprisoned for the past five years on charges of espionage. All of them had been given long prison sentences. The case of the "Cuban Five" as they have come to be known, has become a cause celebre.

People all over the world rallied behind their cause and the Cuban government, international legal experts, political activists and others coordinated their efforts to ensure a just trial for the five. In the U.S., a National Committee to Free the Five has been very active. In Cuba, the five - Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez - have become national heroes. Fidel Castro makes it a point to remind the Cuban people about the sacrifices their five compatriots have made for the security of the nation.

The five were arrested and put on trial in 1998 before a blatantly partisan court and jury in Florida. Their only crime, to which they readily admitted, was working as undercover agents for the Cuban government. In the early 1990s, they managed to infiltrate the tight-knit Cuban emigre-dominated terrorist groups in Florida. Their mission was to prevent anti-Cuban groups in Florida from mounting more terrorist attacks against the island. In the late 1990s, terrorist groups, including the group connected to the notorious Luis Posada Carriles, managed to infiltrate Cuba and stage terrorist attacks, which killed and injured many citizens. Their major target was Cuba's booming tourist industry, which was one of the mainstays of the Cuban economy after the collapse of the socialist bloc.

The Cuban Five admitted that they worked for the Cuban government but emphasised that they were spying only on the activities of the Cuban terrorist groups active in Florida and not on the U.S. government. According to them, their only motivation was to protect their country from terrorism originating from American soil. Their lawyers argued that the five took recourse to espionage because the U.S. government failed to prevent such attacks on Cuba from its soil.

However, the five were not given a fair hearing. Despite the pleas of their lawyers, their case was heard in Miami-Dade County, a stronghold of the Right-wing exile Cuban community. The sentences given to them were more stringent than those handed out to convicted American spies, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen. A number of international organisations alleged that the Cubans were subjected to harsh conditions, including long periods of solitary confinement.

The Cuban government highlighted the case in various international fora, and solidarity committees calling for justice for the five have come up in many countries. The Cuban government pointed out that since the revolution of 1959, Miami-based Right-wing Cuban exile groups had organised more than 700 terrorist attacks against the Cuban government, on Cuban soil and outside. These attacks had resulted in more than 3,000 deaths, it said. One group, Alpha-66, maintains training facilities in Florida Everglades and southern California.

There have been many documented cases of attacks on Cuban ships and ships heading for Cuba in international waters. Other notorious terrorist groups acting with virtual impunity out of American soil even today are Omega-7 and Commando-L. The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which is one of the richest lobbying groups in the U.S. and has strong links with the Republican Party, is known to have financed many missions out of Miami. Orlando Bosch, one of the brains behind the bombing of a Cubana Passenger Jet in 1976, which killed 73 people, was given a pardon by George Bush Senior at the fag end of his term as President.

IN 1990 the Cuban government started its own intelligence operation in the U.S., code-named La Red Avispa (the Wasp Network). Its purpose was to infiltrate the groups in Florida in a bid to forestall attacks. As later events showed, the Wasp Network was successful in its objective of infiltrating the counter-revolutionary terrorist groups.

However, the Cuban authorities made a major miscalculation in 1998 when they shared information on terrorist activities on American soil with agents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The American government, instead of cracking down on the terrorist groups, asked the FBI to find out the source of the Cuban government's intelligence dossier on the terrorist networks in Florida. The arrest of the Cuban Five and their farcical trial followed.

There is now renewed hope for the Cuban Five after a three-Judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta stated in its 93-page ruling that the publicity and the string of incidents before and during the trial at the Miami-Dade County made it an unsuitable venue for the trial. A 1976 Senate hearing on "Terrorism in the Miami Area" said that Dade County was a "base of international terrorism" in which "many criminal conspiracies are entered into - which culminate in terrorist-type attacks in Latin American countries or international waters, directed against Cuban targets or targets which have, or appear to have, some relationship to Cuba".

The court also overturned the murder conspiracy conviction against Gerardo Hernandez, who was charged with providing the Cuban government information that led to the shooting down of a plane carrying four Cuban Americans belonging to a fanatical Cuban exile group called "Brothers to the Rescue". The plane was returning to Florida after dropping anti-Cuban leaflets over Havana. The Cuban government had repeatedly requested the Clinton administration to prevent the group from violating Cuban air space.

After the latest court ruling, lawyers for the Cuban Five and the Cuban government have called for the release of the prisoners. Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the Cuban National Assembly, welcomed the court decision and demanded the immediate release of the five, pending a fresh trial. "If they want to accuse them of something else, then accuse them, present evidence and search for an impartial evidence. I don't have the slightest doubt that any honest person analysing the case will arrive at the same conclusion as the Atlanta Appeals Court," said Alarcon.

The senior Cuban leader told the media in Caracas in August that if there is a new fair and free trial, then "it will be a Nuremberg for that terrorist and hypocritical administration". Alarcon was referring to the Bush administration. He said the latest trial of the five showed that Cuba was forced to defend itself from terrorism, a fact referred to in the latest ruling that reversed the Florida court's judgment.

A United Nations working group reviewing the case of the Cuban Five had 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". The U.N. report also pointed out that the five were held wrongfully in solitary confinement for 17 months and their lawyers were deprived of the opportunity to examine all the available evidence before the U.S. government invoked the Classified Information Protection Act.

The judicial and political yardstick applied to the Cuban Five by the Americans highlights the double standards adopted in the fight against global terrorism. While denying the Cuban Five their freedom, the Bush administration went out of its way to protect Luis Posada Carriles from prosecution. Posada has been in the terrorism business since the 1960s, fighting for American-supported causes all over Latin America and the Caribbean. For America he is obviously the "good" terrorist.

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