Court rules on sentences of 'Cuban 5'

Campaign News | Thursday, 5 June 2008

From the Miami Herald

A federal appeals court has again upheld the politically charged convictions of five Cuban intelligence agents accused of spying in the U.S., but vacated sentences of three of them, including two who are serving life terms.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals returned those cases to a federal judge in Miami for resentencing based on findings in an opinion filed Wednesday that the five gathered no "top secret" information. It was the third time the case had come before the court.

The full 11th Circuit court already upheld the convictions of the so-called "Cuban Five" in August 2006. It rejected claims that their federal trial should have been moved from Miami because of widespread opposition among Cuban-Americans there to the communist Cuban government.

The five have been lionized as heroes in Cuba, while exile groups say they were justly punished.

In the appeal ruled on Wednesday, the five challenged a judge's refusal to suppress evidence from searches conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, sovereign immunity, discovery procedures, jury selection and alleged lack of evidence to support their convictions.

"We conclude that the arguments about the suppression of evidence, sovereign immunity, discovery, jury selection and the trial are meritless, and sufficient evidence supports each conviction," Circuit Judge William H. Pryor wrote.

The latest decision included the life sentence for Gerardo Hernandez, who was convicted of murder conspiracy in the deaths of four Miami-based pilots shot down by Cuban jets in 1996. The panel split 2-1 to uphold Hernandez' life term.

The four slain pilots flew planes that were part of the Brothers to the Rescue organization, which dropped pro-democracy pamphlets on the island.

Hernandez and the others - Ruben Campa, also known as Fernando Gonzalez; Rene Gonzalez; Luis Medina, aka Ramon Labanino; and Antonio Guerrero - were members of what was known by Cuban intelligence as The Wasp Network.

The panel vacated the life terms of Medina and Guerrero and Campa's 19-year sentence, agreeing with their contentions that their sentences were improperly configured because no "top secret information was gathered or transmitted." The judges concurred with Campa that his sentence was too strict because he was not a manager of supervisor of the network.

The five acknowledged being Cuban agents but said they were not spying on the United States. They said their focus was on U.S.-based exile groups planning "terrorist" actions against the Castro government.

After a trial that lasted six months, they were convicted in 2001 of acting as unregistered Cuban agents in the United States and of espionage conspiracy for attempting to penetrate U.S. military bases.

A three-judge 11th Circuit panel overturned the convictions in 2005, saying there should have been a change of venue. But the full court reversed that decision, 10-2.

The National Committee to Free the Cuban Five denounced the decision to uphold the convictions.

"It flies in the face of the truth. The five men are not guilty of any crime," said Gloria La Riva, the committee coordinator. "They were saving lives by stopping terrorism. They never had weapons. They never posed any harm to the people of the United States."


US court upholds conviction of Cuban spies

A US court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of five Cubans serving long prison sentences for spying and conspiracy to commit murder but opened the door to new and possibly lighter sentences for three of the men.

FBI agents arrested the five in 1998 and they were convicted in 2001 of 26 counts of spying on the Cuban exile community in Miami on behalf of Fidel Castro's government.

Lawyers for the men, in an August 2007 filing with the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, said they deserved a new trial because the prosecution made statements in closing arguments that violated court rules and because the sentences were harsher than the crimes deserved.

The appeals court rejected arguments that the convictions should be overturned but said the federal court in Miami may have erred when it imposed the sentences against three of the men in 2001.

The so-called "Cuban Five" are celebrated by many in Cuba as national heroes who were spying on armed exile groups in Miami to prevent attacks on their country and are victims of Washington's campaign against the communist-run island.

To hard-line, anti-Castro members of the Cuban exile community the five agents were justly convicted, however, and Havana's support for them is seen as an example of an anti-U.S. agenda in Cuba dating back to Castro's 1959 revolution.

In Wednesday's ruling, the appellate court affirmed a sentence of two life terms for Gerardo Hernandez, who was indicted for conspiracy to commit murder based on charges he passed information to Havana that led to the 1996 downing by a Cuban MiG fighter jet of two small planes operated by a Miami-based exile group that were flying near Cuba. Four people were killed.

The court also affirmed the 15-year sentence of Rene Gonzalez, who was convicted of acting as an agent for a foreign government and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

The sentences of the three other men, two of whom were serving life terms, were vacated and remanded for resentencing proceedings in district court.

(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Anthony Boadle)

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