In June 1998, FBI officials visiting Havana were given reports by the Cuban government on anti-Cuban terrorist groups operating in the United States. On Sept. 16, 1998, five men – René González, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, Antonio Guerrero and Gerardo Hernández – were arrested in Miami and charged with espionage and related charges. They, the Miami Five, were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 years to two life terms. They spoke out at their sentencing, saying they have no regret about their efforts to protect their country from terrorist acts.
The following is an abridged introduction of a new book published in Cuba of the speeches of the Miami Five at their sentencing. The introduction, by Ricardo Alarcón, speaker of the Cuban National Assembly and former representative of Cuba to the United Nations, offers some feel of the issues involved in their trial and the methods used by the prosecutors to coerce the jury into finding them guilty.
Early in the morning of Sept. 12, 1998, the FBI informed Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Lincoln Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.), hornblowers for the Batistan terrorist mob in Miami, that it had just arrested five purported “spies” living there.
Although the Florida Congressional delegation is comprised of 25 individuals, none of the others were given advance notice by the investigators. Why this privilege? Why share information with them from an “investigation” yet to be made public?
Formal charges were not laid until four days later. But from the very beginning, it was clear that this was a case of a political-repressive operation, aimed solely at benefiting the most aggressive and violent sector of those who had turned South Florida into the main base for their war on Cuba since 1959.
The various counterrevolutionary factions, and politicians and officials closely tied to them, immediately unleashed a frenzied and hysterical campaign to stigmatize the five prisoners. Not a day went by without the appearance of new articles or announcements, including statements by officials, slandering the five by portraying them as dangerous enemies of society.
The real reason behind their imprisonment was hidden. Not a word was published about their lives, in Cuba and the United States, as students, workers, fathers or citizens; nothing was said about the selfless and admirable sacrifices they made to protect their country and its people. Nor was anything said about what had happened to them since the early morning hours of that Sept. 12, or about the brutal conditions they suffered in prison.
Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, Antonio Guerrero and René González are victims of an injustice and of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment that violates their human rights and is irrefutable proof of the arbitrariness and illegitimacy of the legal proceedings to which they were submitted. From the day of their arrest until Feb. 3, 2000, throughout 17 months, they were kept in solitary confinement, shut up the entire time in the “hole.”
Their treatment constituted a violation of U.S. prison regulations, which establish the use of solitary confinement solely as punishment for infractions committed in prison, and limit its length to a maximum of 60 days. They had not violated any of the prison’s regulations before being imprisoned. Nevertheless, they were kept in isolation.
It was impossible for them to maintain adequate communication with their attorneys and prepare their defense with the guarantees of due process. If there were anything similar to justice in Miami, the court should have ordered their release and obliged the government to make adequate reparations.
We should mention the commendable work done, in spite of everything, by the defense. The five defendants did not have attorneys of their own, nor the financial resources needed to hire them. As a result, they were assigned public defenders, with whom they had no prior relationship. But despite the profound ideological differences separating them, they became convinced of the innocence of the five.
While the five endured in utter solitude, their enemies appeared on TV, on the radio and in newspapers day and night to slander them and threaten their families and friends. You could read up on all the details of the “trial” in the city’s slander sheets, including the details of additional charges that the prosecution would formulate many months later.
Holding a trial in Miami with even the appearance of a normal legal proceeding was inconceivable. Yet the repeated requests made by the defense to have the trial moved to another city were turned down by Federal Judge Joan Lenard who offered no explanation as to why the trial had to be held there, only there and nowhere else. But she did say something to the press that could provide the key to understanding her stubborn insistence: “This trial will be much more interesting than any TV program,” she said on March 16, 2000.
And indeed it was. It was often through the media that the lawyers first received news of the steps being taken by the prosecution, the “evidence” they claimed to possess, the charges that could be laid, and even the motions they raised, in their obstinate efforts to introduce some semblance of legality into the midst of arbitrariness and fraud.
There were numerous violations of procedure. Defense attorneys were not allowed access to “evidence.” Often their requests that certain evidence or documents, which were fundamental for shedding light on the accusations made against the defendants, be included in the trial record were denied. Witnesses were openly pressured by the prosecution, under the threat of being charged themselves if they revealed certain information. The court provided 1,400 pages of documents, selected by the authorities, to the local press, which were used to fuel a propaganda campaign to demonize the accused.
The evidence and arguments put forward by the defense clearly demonstrated the terrorist activities carried out from Miami against Cuba and the tolerance exhibited by the U.S. authorities, which make it necessary for the Cuban people to defend themselves. They made it abundantly clear that the defendants had not sought out information that would threaten the national security of the United States, and had caused no harm to anyone.
Testimony against the five was provided by officials from the FBI and high-ranking military figures who had held major positions in the U.S. armed forces. Even General James Clapper, former director of the intelligence agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, acknowledged that the accused had not committed espionage against the United States.
At the end of five months of courtroom battle, the total innocence of Gerardo, Ramón, Fernando, René and Antonio had been made clear.
The accused had carried out no espionage activities. They had neither obtained nor sought any information related to the security, defense or any other interest of the United States. They had done nothing to cause damage to that country or its citizens. Not a single piece of evidence had been put forward, not a single witness came forth to uphold the charges against the five men.
Their efforts had been focused, solely and exclusively, on infiltrating terrorist groups and informing Cuba of these groups’ plans for aggression against the island. During the trial, it was thoroughly demonstrated that terrorist acts are carried out against Cuba from Florida, and that the U.S. authorities do nothing in response. As a result, Cuba is obliged to defend itself from these activities, which have sometimes led to the loss of lives and serious damage for the people of the United States as well.
The most serious accusation against Gerardo Hernández – conspiracy to commit murder, in connection with the incident of Feb. 24, 1996 [in which a Cuban fighter shot down an airplane flown by anti-Cuban terrorists in Cuban airspace] – is an outrage. There is a lengthy record of the use of light aircraft taking off from Miami to carry out countless and repeated violations of Cuban airspace and to commit numerous crimes, including shootings, bombings and the dropping of chemical and bacteriological substances. All of this was amply documented during the trial. It was equally documented that Cuba had warned that it would not tolerate further incursions into its territory.
And independently of all of this, Gerardo had nothing to do with the decision of the Cuban Air Force with what happened that day. Consequently charging him with first degree murder and sentencing him to a second life sentence is quite simply the height of outrage. After just a few hours, the jury reached its verdict: all five were declared guilty of each and every one of the charges against them.
From the time of the jury selection process, its members were subjected to relentless pressures. On Dec. 2, 2000, for example, El Nuevo Herald, in an article titled “Fear of being jury member in trial of spies,” stated: “The fear of a violent reaction on the part of the Cuban exile community if a jury decides to acquit the five men accused of spying for the island regime has led many potential candidates to ask the judge to excuse them from civic duty.”
This fear was not unfounded. The members of the jury lived in a community that had only recently suffered months of violence and anxiety, when a group of criminals kidnapped 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, and even defying federal authorities with firearms. These individuals had burned the American flag, destroyed property, plunged the streets into chaos and threatened to burn the city down, without one of them facing trial for these acts.
The members of the jury were also aware of the physical and verbal attacks, used against those who dared to voice opinions contrary to the ones held by those who control Miami’s exile community. If they had done all of these things in broad daylight and in front of television cameras from around the world, what would they not have done in secret to control a dozen frightened people?
In the meantime, the five were locked up in the “hole” from June 26 to August 13 in an act of mindless vengeance but also a form of torture, with the purpose of breaking them down and preventing them from adequately preparing for the next and final stage of the trial: the sentencing hearings scheduled for the following month. When finally returned to their cells following insistent demands by their attorneys, telephone communication was restricted, with most of their belongings taken away.
Judge Lenard imposed the toughest sentences possible on all five of the defendants: For Gerardo Hernández, two life sentences plus 15 years; for Ramón Labañino, a life sentence plus 18 years; for Fernando González, 19 years in prison; for René González, 15 years in prison; and for Antonio Guerrero, a life sentence plus 10 years.
The five heroes were once again separated and isolated. All that is known is that Gerardo will be sent to the Lompoc penitentiary in California; Ramón to Beaumont, Texas; Fernando to Oxford, Wisconsin; René to Loreto, Pennsylvania; and Antonio to Florence, Colorado. As well as distancing them from one another, this arrangement will also make it extremely difficult for them to have any contact with family members living in Cuba and with Cuban diplomatic representatives, who should be allowed access to them in accordance with international standards.
It is particularly outrageous, and should be denounced as vigorously as possible, that Washington has completely ignored universally accepted principles, standards and practices and failed to acknowledge the political prisoner status of these five heroes of the Republic of Cuba. The brazen conduct of the U.S. authorities in this case fully reveals their genuine stance towards terrorism and the utter hypocrisy of the campaign deployed after the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
These five Cubans are being punished because of the fact that they truly did fight against terrorism. Those who have taken away their freedom and sought to slander and denigrate them have done so because they dared to combat the heinous criminals who were created and continue to be protected by those very same authorities.
Every hour that they spend locked up in that living hell is an insult to the memory of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11 and all other victims of terrorism. It is also an affront to all those who believe in dignity and human decency.
The Cuban people will fight relentlessly until the five are freed and can return to their homes and their homeland. In order to achieve this goal, the solidarity of all men and women of good will around the world is urgently needed.