Prisoners of the Empire

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

The fate of five Cubans sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in the U.S. for `espionage' and `murder' hangs in the balance as the case is to be heard again by a higher court in April.

SINCE September 1998, five Cubans, two of them citizens of the United States, have been in solitary confinement in various jails in the U.S. Their crime is that they infiltrated a terrorist ring in the U.S. involved in carrying out acts of sabotage and terrorism in their country. Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzales, Antonio Guerrero and Rene Gonzalez, all of whom had exemplary records as private citizens, had managed to infiltrate into the top echelons of a terrorist ring in South Florida. A lower court in Miami, Florida, handed out life sentences to them in December 2001. They were arrested soon after the Cuban authorities passed on intelligence about the activities of the anti-Cuban exile groups to the U.S. authorities. These groups have been guilty of well-documented terrorist acts on American soil also. These included the murder of Orlando Letelier, the Foreign Minister of Chile under the Leftist President Salvadore Allende, in Washington in 1976.

After the Cuban revolution of 1959, the U.S. had welcomed to the country many of the killers employed by the ousted Batista dictatorship. They soon started indulging in terrorist and counter-revolutionary activities in Cuba, including the blowing up of a Cuban airliner off the coast of Barbados in 1976 killing 73 people, with the active connivance of U.S. security agencies. There were countless plots to assassinate the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. The activities of counter-revolutionary terrorist gangs increased in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. There was a spurt in bomb explosions at hotels and in areas frequented by tourists.

During their trial in the lower court, it was proved that the five accused did not carry out any espionage activity. They had neither obtained nor sought any information related to security, defence or any other sensitive area in the U.S. None of their activities was aimed at harming the interests of the U.S. or its citizens. Significantly, Gen. James Clapper, former Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency (the intelligence agency of the U.S. Department of Defence), testifying as an expert witness for the prosecution, acknowledged that the accused had not spied against the U.S. The prosecution was unable to prove a single charge on these counts. The lawyers for the accused convincingly argued that their sole motivation was to keep the government of Cuba informed about the machinations of the terrorist groups. During the trial, evidence of terrorist acts perpetrated against Cuba from Florida with the U.S. government's tacit approval was produced. Lawyers for the defendants argued that given the circumstances, Cuba had no option but to defend itself against the terrorist groups operating from U.S. soil.

The most serious charge is against Gerardo Hernandez, who is accused of murder. He is held responsible for the downing of a light aircraft that had taken off from Miami to drop anti-government leaflets over Cuban territory in February 1996. Over the years, light aircraft from Miami had been dropping leaflets and bacteriological and chemical substances over Cuba. Cuba had warned before February 1996 that it would no longer tolerate incursions into its territory. The intruding aircraft was shot down just off Havana, the capital. The Cuban government has said that Hernandez had nothing to do with the decision of the Cuban Air Force to shoot down the plane. Nevertheless, Hernandez was charged with first-degree murder, without a shred of proof. If the lower court's decision is upheld, Hernandez will have to serve two consecutive life terms. In effect, he will have to spend the rest of his life in a U.S. prison.

With the trial taking place in a Miami court, getting justice was an uphill task. Southern Florida is dominated by the right-wing Cuban exile groups, collectively known as the Miami Mafia. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the younger brother of President George W. Bush, owes a debt of gratitude to the Cuban exile groups for his re-election to the post. His elder brother would not have been the U.S. President but for the shenanigans of the Miami Mafia in the districts that they dominated in Florida. Repeated requests of the defence to move the trial to another U.S. city were denied. Last year, the organisers of the Latin Grammy Awards function were forced to shift the venue from Miami to Los Angeles as the Miami Mafia threatened to prevent the Cuban performers nominated for the awards from performing in the State.

The trial turned out to be a media circus. Even before the trial started, the five Cuban patriots were pronounced guilty of committing heinous crimes. The charge of murder against Hernandez was brought almost as an afterthought when the trial was a couple of weeks old. Defence witnesses were pressured in full view of the electronic media. Witnesses were told by the prosecution that they would face severe consequences if they revealed crucial information that would attest to the innocence of the accused. Information was leaked to the media by the prosecution even before charges were framed.

Despite the obstacles, the defence attorneys presented more than enough evidence to show that the five accused were only guided by their desire to protect Cuba from the terrorist activities conducted from Florida. Their argument that the five had not sought out information to threaten the security of the U.S. was supported by high-ranking U.S. officials belonging to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the military.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, the five-member jury did not take much time to pronounce a guilty verdict. Many citizens of Miami had refused to serve on the jury. El Nuevo Herald, a newspaper that supports the Cuban exile community, stated in an article before the trial started: "The fear of a violent reaction on the part of the Cuban exile community, if the jury decides to acquit the five men accused of spying for the island regime, has led many potential candidates to ask the judge to relieve them from their civic duty." After the judge, who did not hide her sympathies for the right-wing Cuban exile community, announced her verdict, the five accused courageously denounced it and took the opportunity to reiterate their loyalty to their homeland, their people and their ideals.

To compound further their ordeal, the five prisoners were separated and sent to various prisons. The prisons they are incarcerated in are among the most notorious; they house persons convicted for the most heinous crimes. In many countries the Cubans would at least have been given the status of political prisoners. Ricardo Alarcon de Queseda, the President of Cuba's National Assembly, said that Washington had ignored universally accepted principles, standards and practices, thereby "revealing its genuine stance towards terrorism and the utter hypocrisy of the campaign deployed after the horrific attack of September 11. These five heroic Cubans are being punished precisely because they did fight against terrorism."

The case is due to be heard again by the U.S. Court of Appeals in the first week of April. Counsel for the Cubans want the hearing to be held outside Florida, as they do not expect their clients to receive a fair trial. Meanwhile, the U.S. authorities are continuing to prevent the defence lawyers from contacting the prisoners. The lawyers are also not being given access to relevant documents. Ironically, lawyers for the Pakistani suspects arrested for alleged involvement in the September 11 incidents have been given access to relevant documents. In the case of the Cuban prisoners, documents pertaining to the case have been classified as highly sensitive.

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