Cuban Five lose appeal, protests build

Almost ten months after defense attorneys presented oral arguments, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals June 4 delivered bad news to prisoners Gerardo Hernandez, Fernando Gonzalez; Rene Gonzalez; Ramon Labanino; and Antonio Guerrero, collectively known as the Cuban Five. The three judge panel reaffirmed all five convictions plus the sentences imposed on two of the men. However, the Appeals Court did revoke life sentences for Labanino and Guerrero, also Fernando Gonzalez’ 19-year term. The judges noted that “no top secret information was gathered or transmitted.” Their cases go back to the Miami court for resentencing.

The five Cubans had come to Florida in the 1990s to monitor impending attacks by counter-revolutionary groups in Cuba and warn authorities there. They had been arrested on numerous charges in September 1998 and convicted in 2001.

Gerardo Hernandez’ two life sentences stand, one for conspiracy to commit espionage, the other for murder conspiracy, as does Rene Gonzalez’ 15-year sentence. Hernandez was charged with contributing to the 1996 downing by Cuban aircraft of two planes flown over Cuban waters by the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue. Four flyers died.

A three judge panel of the same appeals court had reversed their convictions in August 2005, ruling that prejudice had fatally infected their Miami trial. Exactly a year later, the full court reversed that decision. Defense lawyers based their appeal this time on other grounds: neglect of due process, insufficient evidence for conspiracy, “sovereign immunity” and inappropriate sentencing. The 99- page opinion, written by Judge William Pryor, characterized all of them, save the last, as “meritless.”

No public commentary from defense lawyers was available immediately following the announcement of the decision, yet the North American movement in solidarity with the Five moved quickly into action. Within hours, demonstrations were set for June 5 in Vancouver and Detroit, for June 6 in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Chicago, Winnipeg, and Toronto.

Analyst Jane Franklin noted that media bias surrounding the case was continuing. A banner headline in the Miami Herald proclaims, “Espionage!” That paper and others have long failed to specify that the most serious charge on which the Cuban Five were convicted was conspiracy to commit espionage – murder conspiracy in the case of Gerardo Hernandez – not actual spying, which, according to defense lawyer Leonard Weinglass, the government never tried to prove.