Comité Nacional por la Libertad de los Cinco Cubanos

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'Cuban Five' spy suspects ride wave of support

by Jay Weaver
June 8, 2009
Reprinted from The Miami Herald

The publicity machine to free the "Cuban Five" -- who are awaiting word from the U.S. Supreme Court about the appeal of their Miami spy case -- has shifted into overdrive.

Ten Nobel Prize winners, from German author Gunter Grass to Guatemalan peace activist Rigoberta Menchú, have joined supporters in filing "friends of the court" briefs seeking to overturn the 2001 convictions of the Cuban men. Websites, billboards, TV interviews and the Cuban newspaper Granma portray the five as "heroes" and their incarceration as an "injustice."

The campaign is "aimed at the U.S. government" by influencing public opinion, said Gloria La Riva, coordinator of the San Francisco-based advocacy group, National Committee to Free the Cuban Five.

But those who pushed for the prosecution -- including relatives who lost four Miami loved ones in a Cuban government shoot-down of an exile group's planes during the Cuban Five's tenure -- label the P.R. as "propaganda."

The Supreme Court could decide by the end of its term in June whether to review the case, a flaming symbol of the hostility between the Castro-led nation and the United States.

The decade-old case has been mired in controversy because of the spy network's ties to the 1996 shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes over the Florida Straits.

The five men were arrested in 1998 for their roles in La Red Avispa, The Wasp Network, which was directed by Cuban intelligence and uncovered by U.S. agents. Ring members infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue and other Miami-area exile groups, spread disinformation and spied for Fidel Castro's regime. Some of the men also were accused of espionage for trying to gather intelligence about the U.S. military. One was a laborer at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station near Key West.

They won a major victory four years after their convictions, when an appellate court panel in Atlanta ruled that the group's six-month trial was hopelessly flawed because of its setting: Miami.

The three-judge panel cited news coverage and public protests from jury selection through the verdict, saying the community was influenced at that time by stories about the Elián González custody dispute, a U.S. immigration agent charged with spying for Castro and local bans on doing business with Cuba.

The panel called it a "perfect storm."

But in 2006, the entire appeals court, in a 10-2 vote, rejected the panel's order for a new trial in a different city. The court praised U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard for her handling of jury selection and noted that none of the 12 jurors was of Cuban descent.

Then last year, another appeals panel upheld the five men's convictions but threw out three of their sentences -- including two life prison terms. The resentencings for Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando González are pending.

Voting 2-1, the Atlanta court upheld the central conviction and life sentence of the one defendant convicted of conspiring in the shoot-down murders, Gerardo Hernández.

It's unlikely that the Supreme Court -- saddled with thousands of petitions every year -- would review Hernández's challenge of the evidence underscoring his conviction.

But the justices might consider whether the Cuban Five received a fair trial in the capital of the exile community.

Hernández was the only one of the five held responsible for the killings of three Cuban Americans and a Cuban exile who were slain on Feb. 24, 1996, when Cuban fighter jets shot down two of their Brothers to the Rescue planes over international waters.

"Hernández argues that his conviction should be reversed because the government failed to prove he intended the murder to occur within the jurisdiction of the United States, failed to prove that he knew of the object of the conspiracy, and failed to prove that he acted with malice aforethought," wrote appellate Judge William H. Pryor Jr. in the latest ruling.

"Each of these arguments fails."

To relatives of the four killed, Hernández's conviction provided some solace.

"Hernández is the only human being serving a life sentence for a horrible crime that has been condemned all over the world," said Maggie Khuly, a Miami architect whose brother, Armando Alejandre Jr., was killed in the shoot-down.

"I'm not going to say I'm satisfied, but at least justice is being served because he's going to be in prison for the rest of his life."

Khuly said the publicity generated by Cuban Five sympathizers -- including the Nobel Prize winners -- is pure P.R.

"They are just getting one side of the story," she said. "None of them sat through the trial the way that I did. Judge Lenard bent over backward to give the defense every benefit of the doubt.

"Most of this is propaganda; it's not based on reality," she said. "They're not interested in looking at the evidence. They are convinced by the propaganda machine [in Cuba] that nothing just and nothing good can come out of Miami."

Since their convictions, the incarcerated defendants have drawn support from around the globe with the help of the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, which manages a website, It chronicles the men's lives and legal fight, and includes prison interviews.

The group's coordinator, La Riva, said its goal is spreading the truth -- not propaganda.

"She fails to mention all the unilateral publicity against the Cuban Five during their detention and trial, which is why they were denied a fair trial in Miami," La Riva said, referring to Khuly's comment.

She and other advocates for the Cuban Five maintain the men's activities were justified because they were trying to infiltrate exile groups in Miami to prevent terrorist actions against Cuba.

Among their notable supporters: the 10 Nobel Prize winners, including award recipients for peace from Argentina, East Timor, Guatemala and Northern Ireland. They note in their brief that they "have spent much of their lives concerned with issues of justice."

Eleven other groups, including legislators from the European Parliament, also have filed friends of the court briefs backing the Cuban Five.

And, a panel of the United Nations Human Rights Commission has condemned their trial, citing a "climate of bias and prejudice" in Miami. It marked the first and only time in history that the body condemned a U.S. judicial proceeding.


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