March 15: Miami Five latest: “IT WAS A FAIR HEARING"

Campaign News | Monday, 15 March 2004

Interview with Leonard Weinglass, lawyer of Antonio Guerrero by Rosa Miriam Elizalde and Esther Barroso of the Cuban media

Havana, March 15:He had just arrived in Havana, two days after the appeals hearing in the case of the Five Cubans, who were condemned in the “poisoned” city of Miami three years ago, had taken place.

This is the first interview that Leonard Weinglass has given to the Cuban press, but it will not be the last. Other colleagues will soon arrive and we want to take advantage of every single minute that he can give us.

In front of us, sitting in a large couch and smiling, is one of the protagonists of this new legal battle that takes place again in Miami but in different circumstances. We have a lot of questions and, by chance, Jose Pertierra - a lawyer that became known to the Cuban people during the legal battle for the return of Elián González to Cuba - has joined our working team. Generously, he will be our translator during this interview that begins with the words of the title: “It was a fair hearing.”


It was a fair hearing. None of the three judges was from Florida. None of them had been a prosecutor before. It was an unusually good panel for us, one that allowed us to present our arguments. They made a lot of questions to both the prosecution and the defence, and I think we had a full hearing. However, it is very difficult to predict what the court’s decision will be.

You can feel a lot of optimism in the comments of those who attended the hearing and support the cause of the Five. What is your perception?

It is still too early to celebrate. The truth is that we don’t know what these judges are thinking. We only know what they are interested in. It is true that they paid attention to the aspects that we wanted to highlight, that’s true, and that encourages us, but we don’t know how they feel about those topics that are essential in this appeal. We’ll have to wait.

How do you assess the Prosecution’s arguments?

The most interesting thing here has to do with the arguments that the Prosecution chose to present. However, in this case, it was the panel of judges who led the Prosecution regarding the selected arguments. The arguments that the Court asked the Prosecution to explain more thoroughly were precisely the same arguments that we wanted to highlight. In that sense, we feel encouraged. But we don’t know if the judges were thinking in our favour or if they were only trying to get more arguments to support an opinion that is completely against us.

Can you describe for us what exactly happened with the murder conspiracy count?

About this charge, the Court made some difficult questions to both sides. From that, we perceive that they were very interested in that matter. However, it is impossible to know if they were in favour or against us. At least, they were interested and that’s all I can say.

Media reports have coincided on the fact that the prosecutor’s answers were weak and now you say that both parts were asked difficult questions. What were those questions? How weak were the answers of prosecutor Catherine Hank-Miller?

There are two issues about which the court asked the Prosecution that indicates their concerns. On the murder conspiracy count, they asked basically two questions: where is the evidence that shows Gerardo knew that the planes would be shot down? The answers of the Prosecution were very weak. The second question was: where is the evidence that shows that Gerardo also participated in the plan? In this case, her answers were weak again. That’s encouraging for us. However, according to our experience, sometimes the Court asks the Prosecution questions that are difficult for them to answer but, then, they rule in their favour anyway.

Have you been able to consult with other attorneys what happened there?

After the hearing, I met with several lawyers who, from their own experience, asked us not to celebrate any victories yet. Lawyers in the U.S. know very well that many times, when we leave the courtroom thinking that we won, it is only to discover two or three months later that in fact we lost.

A while ago you spoke of two topics regarding the judges’ questions. You spoke of one: the murder conspiracy count. What’s the other?

The second had to do with the change of venue and the Ramírez case in which, as you know, the Prosecution tried to take the case out of Miami alleging prejudices by the Cuban community there. On this occasion, they also obtained weak answers from the Prosecution. The prosecutor gave an answer that was in complete contradiction with their arguments in that case: she said that Miami was an appropriate venue for the trial. Here, she spent more time trying to answer than what she was supposed to. Her answer was not convincing.

We have also seen in press reports that the espionage conspiracy count did not receive a lot of attention in this hearing.

Very little was said about the substance of this charge. However, it was different regarding the sentence, and about this, defence attorney Richard Klugh presented solid arguments. That’s why we think that our opinions were clear and there was a good reaction to the argument that the Five did not violate the national security of the United States.

For example, I explained that my client, Antonio Guerrero, was given the same sentence as Robert Walker, Robert Hansen and Aldrich Ames, well-known spies in whose cases we can find hundreds of documents that show why they violated the national security of the country. However, in the case of Antonio and the two others charged with this count, there was not a single page. Then, how can you impose the same life sentence in cases that are so different? We hope that the court understands this simple fact.

Was there any comment by the judges that gave you any sign that, in fact, none of our comrades ever jeopardized the national security of the United States?

We said clearly that they were not a danger to the national security of the United States. I don’t recall the prosecutor replying to the statement that we made and the judges in the appeals hearing did not allow the kind of environment that prevailed during the trial. There, they said that the Five had arrived in the United States to put the country’s national security in danger. This kind of extreme exaggeration succeeded before a jury in Miami but they could have not - and they did even try - to convince the three judges about that.

After an almost complete silence about this case, there have been some public reports after the hearing. How do you interpret this? Does it imply any changes?

What happened in this case is not unusual. The case of Mumia, after silenced for 14 years, is now well known in the United States and the world. Likewise, the case of the Five has received very little attention over the past five years. However, there are some facts that we may consider in their favour and which should increase the people’s attention from now on. First, The New York Times’ full page ad that helped a lot. Also, the report broadcast by Fox network. It was brief, but the case was there. There were nine television cameras outside the courtroom during the appeals hearing. They could not ignore something that had international interest, in Europe and in Latin America. Undoubtedly, it attracted public attention. I expect more and more reports on the case in the coming months. Thus far, it has been us who have knocked on the media’s doors. Now, it is the other way around. So, it is natural to think that a lot more will be said about the case.

How can that influence the Court’s decision?

No lawyer can answer that question. We really don’t know. What we do know is that a lot of public support is better for the case, because it is harder for the Court to ignore the critical factors of the case. Without exactly knowing the relationship between public support and the Court, it is right to say that the more public support, the better.

What is your impression of the judges and the way they conducted the hearing?

All my impressions, considering their record, were confirmed during the hearing. Two of them went to the best Schools of Law in the United States and they were among the best in their classes. It was an unusually intelligent court and very qualified. It was an older court. One of them is 80 and another 84 years old. These are judges who are very well advanced on their careers. They already have a name. They can be independent now. That’s why they handled the hearing the way we expected.

The questions were smart. They focused on the issues that we expected. They did not focus strictly on the patriotic issue. It was all law-oriented. We appreciate that. If we put aside the national or patriotic interests, we have a very solid case. We hoped that the court would show this interest in the case and that’s what happened indeed.

What can we expect now? Do you know when will the court pronounce their verdict?

It is impossible to know when the court will make their decision. This court is characterized for making their decisions in lesser time than others. But this was a very long and complicated case. It is very difficult to say. If we were to speculate, I would say that they will make their decision in no less than 60 days and no more than 100. But that’s only speculation. We will have to see what their decision will be. If we win anything, the Prosecution can appeal to the Court en banc. And, then, if we lose, we can do the same. The case is going to the Court en banc anyway. However, the Court is not obliged to accept the case. Both sides can make a petition but, in most cases, it is denied. Then, any side can appeal to the Supreme Court. Again, it is a petition for the Court to accept the case.

And how long does this process take after the judges make their decision?

The entire process is very quick.

What are the different and possible decisions that the Court can make?

One of the possibilities is winning or losing it all. Winning or losing each of the 26 counts or the issue of the trial venue or the errors during the process, like the tracking of foreign intelligence, the Act of classified information, etc? Very technical things. The judges may also send part of the case back to the original court for more litigation. The Court may also split. Two judges may be in favour of a decision and the other may disagree. There are many possibilities.

There are more than 200 solidarity groups around the world that are eagerly awaiting the court’s decision. What would you recommend to them?

I am not an expert on matters of tactics for solidarity groups. However, anything that helps to educate and inform the public on this topic would help a lot. I think it is vital and they do it very well. We have to take advantage of the situation.

Something extraordinary has happened in the U.S. regarding this case. It was the longest in the country. Three generals, an admiral and a former presidential adviser testified. A history of forty years of foreign policy was brought to the court. This is very rare. People who had committed violent acts were brought to the court so that they could give their testimonies on these acts. However, this case did not get any media attention, except in Miami.

I have not seen any satisfactory explanation about this. In the U.S., when you turn on your TV on you see a lot of reports on different judicial processes, but nothing on the case of the Five. What is happening is unbelievable. It’s been going on until now. So, the solidarity groups could break these barriers only by simply presenting the facts of what happened. We have a good opportunity now to educate the people about this case.

Regarding the electoral process in the United States, can the presidential campaign have any influence on the case now?

If the decision comes in June or July, this would be at the start of the elections season and we don’t know what will the Court’s decision will be. We have an Attorney General, John Ashcroft, who loves to talk to the American people and his views tend toward the extreme right. If we win parts of the case, they will definitely attack the Court. What effect will it have on the presidential candidates? We can only speculate. Any result will be politicised in a context in which South Florida is very important. There is concern about this. With very few exceptions, there are not many politicians who support the cause of the Five. The most likely result is that we will see more attacks against them and against the Court. We are worried about that.

It is extraordinary that now, when there has been some information about the Appeal, the American media continues to present them as “spies”.

Yes. For 14 years they said that Miami was a cop killer but later they began to call him a journalist. That is why it is so important to educate the public so that media outlets change their simple and mistaken headlines.

Have you spoken with the defendants after the appeals hearing?

I spoke recently with three of them but not after the hearing two days ago. When I go back to the United States I will speak with them about the hearing.

How is Antonio?

He is doing fine. His mother spoke with him yesterday and I spoke with her afterwards. He’s been taken back to Colorado. He feels O.K. and he is as active as he was before.

I asked because prior to this hearing, Antonio was temporarily taken to another penitentiary to undergo surgery and he was put in the “hole.” Something weird?

When they took Antonio away from Colorado to the hospital in Illinois they put him in the hole. Nobody would think of such a thing: to put an inmate who is going to receive medical treatment under such terrible conditions. When he was sick and needed medical treatment, on that precise moment, they put him in the hole. And he saw the doctors when he was in the hole. They had to see him, not in a hospital or a clinic, but in a hole. That’s how they started his treatment. Yes, it is something incredible.

Was there any comment during the hearing about the violation of the human rights of the Five and their families?

No. No. However, we informed the judges about the conditions that were created when they put them in the hole. I wrote in detail what they did to Gerardo and Antonio before the appeals hearing. We gave it in writing to the judges. On that occasion, I asked for more time to prepare myself so that I could represent Antonio. The attorneys told me that the Court would not give me more time but when they read the documents they gave me all the time I needed. That’s why I would like to think that it had some effect on the Court.

Your commitment with this case since you assumed the defence of Antonio Guerrero has been particular. Why this passion?

I have never practiced Law to obtain money or taken part in money litigations where someone wants to take advantage of someone else. Since I was in college and they taught us that being a lawyer was a commitment with justice, I assumed it as such, with passion. Ever since, I have been involved in cases where justice is the main issue or cases with a political nature, taking into account that, for me, it means a commitment with those who are regularly denied justice. And also I have been involved in processes that sometimes gain international significance in the United States. In this case, these three elements are present. But there is still something else: we are representing five extraordinary human beings. For me, Antonio is not an ordinary defendant. Being his defence attorney is more than that. It’s simply an honour.

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