Miami Five - Geoff Bottoms reports from Atlanta

Campaign News | Monday, 27 August 2007



“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Those words of Martin Luther King, the celebrated black civil rights activist assassinated in 1968, would explain the impressive presence of progressive lawyers from across Latin America and Europe who filled the courtroom to capacity in his home town of Atlanta during the recent oral hearing in the latest stage of the appeal of the Miami Five.

Arrested on 12th September 1998, Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez were convicted in 2001 on charges of working in the United States as unregistered agents. Three also were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage during a flawed trial in Miami that resulted in sentences ranging from fifteen years to double life. In reality they were defending their people against terrorism originating in Miami with the full complicity of Washington.

In 2005 defence lawyers won an initial appeal by arguing that the trial should have been moved out of Miami because that city’s large Cuban exile population, mostly hostile to the government in Havana, made a fair proceeding impossible. Prosecutors appealed against that ruling and the full 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the convictions a year later but sent the case back to the three-judge panel on other issues.

In the hearing of August 20th defence attorneys focused on the most serious charges that resulted in life sentences including conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit espionage. Among these were the improper statements made by the prosecution and the insufficient evidence that was used to convict them. “Every type of prosecutorial misconduct ever identified in case law occurred here, in some cases repeatedly so,” defence attorney Brenda Byrn told the court when asking for a new trial.

Public Defender Richard Klugh argued that the five Cubans “were never directed to obtain espionage-level fact one of the defendants is serving a life sentence for what could have been published in the Miami Herald”. Accusing the prosecution attorneys of being “over-hyperbolic” in presenting their arguments against the Five Klugh made a passionate speech in which he proclaimed his Republican credentials while rebutting the charge of being a communist sympathizer. Who said McCarthyism was dead?

In what could only be described as a political rant Prosecutor Caroline Heck-Miller claimed to have evidence that the Five were agents who worked in close collaboration with Cuban military and intelligence services. Much of the argument focused on a 1996 incident in which Cuban MiGs shot down two small private planes operated by a right-wing Miami exile group called Brothers to the Rescue killing four of the pilots. During the trial jurors were told that Gerardo Hernandez had sent information to the Cuban authorities that was used in plans to attack the planes. Yet the defence argued that no evidence was presented showing that Hernandez had knowledge of any plans especially as the planes had flown illegally over Cuban territory and been repeatedly warned to leave.

Judges Birch and Kravitch, who have heard arguments in this case before, peppered Miller with questions about what evidence the government had to support its claims. Miller appeared to dodge these questions by continually discussing the differences between "reasonable" and "plausible." She argued the government only had to convince a jury of the "reasonableness", not the "plausibility", of the charges. Thankfully the third recently appointed judge to join the panel, William Pryor, made few interventions. He is a Bush-appointee described in the local press as a right-wing zealot not fit to hold the post of judge.

Following the hearing Leonard Weinglass, defence attorney for the Five, said “I think we achieved what we came to do. If the court is convinced prosecutorial misconduct took place, the counts of conspiracy to commit espionage and murder could be set aside and there could even be a new trial. But the court could also decide that evidence presented by the government is overwhelming enough to sustain convictions for these counts. It’s very unusual for a case to have three appeals. The system is having trouble digesting this particular injustice”.

Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark also told a packed press conference, “I think the thing that needs to be recognized here is that if you want to stop terrorism, you don't persecute people who are engaged in trying to prevent terrorism. Meanwhile Juan Guzmán, the Chilean attorney who brought charges against the ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet, thought that the defense achieved its main objective: to communicate the poor conduct of the U.S. government and the shortcomings of the jury selected for the Miami trial. "In line with my legal experience, my impression was that those who have knowledge of this case would have to rule in favor of the five Cubans," Guzmán affirmed.

Now that arch-terrorist Luis Posada Carriles is walking free following a trial concerning lesser illegal immigration charges, the hypocrisy of Washington’s policy towards Cuba is evident for all to see. He was responsible for the bombing of an airliner over Barbados in 1976 killing 73 people. Together with the early release of one of his henchmen Osvaldo Mittat recently, and the imminent release of another terrorist Santiago Alvarez, there is no doubt that the case of the Five is nothing short of political. Strangely enough the website of the US Free the Five Committee disappeared from view on the day of the hearing and Leonard Weinglass had TV interviews cancelled. We may have to wait many months before the next appeal decision is made. Meanwhile the campaign continues to return these five Cuban heroes to their families and their people.


Free the Five Political Prisoners

Vigil to mark the ninth anniversary of the arrest of the Miami Five in the US, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign will hold a candlelit vigil outside the US Embassy in London on Tuesday 9 October, 5.30-7pm US Embassy, Grosvenor Square, London (Bond St tube) Tel: 020 7263 6452

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