After considering their case for over a year, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Aug. 9 overturned the 2001 convictions of the “Cuban Five” on charges of serving as unregistered agents of a foreign government. The court said the five men did not receive a fair trial in Miami because of pervasive prejudice there against the government led by President Fidel Castro, and ordered a new trial in a different jurisdiction.

“This is really a historic opinion,” attorney Leonard Weinglass, a member of the Five’s legal team, said in a telephone news conference later that day. Weinglass said a federal appeals court had never before reversed a trial court’s finding on the grounds of venue.

“And in writing their opinion which covers just one of the eight or nine issues raised on appeal,” he said, “the court analyzed in great detail virtually every facet of the case, of the community, of the publicity, of the attitude of the jurors, the actions of the prosecutor and the motions that were made during and after the trial.”

If the court’s ruling is upheld by the U.S. Attorney General’s office, the five Cubans — René González, Gerardo Hernández, Fernando González, Ramon Labañino and Antonio Guerrero — will be transferred back to Miami to begin the process of seeking a new venue with the aim of getting a fair trial. Paul McKenna, lawyer for Hernández, said he would apply for bail as soon as possible since his client’s legal status is what it was before the trial.

The Five were on an anti-terrorist assignment to watch right-wing extremist groups in south Florida. Over more than four decades, nearly 3,500 people have been killed and over 2,100 injured in terrorist attacks against Cuba, including 1997 bombings in Havana in which one tourist was killed and 12 others injured. When the Cuban government shared important information they uncovered with the FBI at a special meeting in 1998, the FBI arrested the five men instead of acting on their findings.

After a 2001 trial in Miami, conducted in an atmosphere of intense hostility and characterized by defense attorneys as legally flawed, they were convicted and sentenced to draconian terms. Two received life sentences, one — Hernández — received two life terms plus 15 years, and the others 15-year and 19-year terms. The men were then dispersed to federal prisons in far-flung locations around the U.S., where they have received harsh treatment including episodes of solitary confinement and denial of family visits.

The Five are viewed as heroes in Cuba and around the world. Their freedom has been the object of a worldwide campaign, including in the U.S. The National Committee to Free the Cuban Five called the Appeals Court’s decision “a sensational victory for the Five, the Cuban people and the international people’s movement that supports them.”

Weinglass pointed out in a statement that attorneys for the Five had had their request for a change of venue to another city denied five times. “Miami is a different city from every other city in the U.S.,” he said. “A portion of the exile community has engaged in terrorism against Cuba for decades. Violence against Cuba is heralded in small, but vocal circles in Miami.”

The defense attorney noted that Orlando Bosch, responsible for bombing a Cuban passenger airliner in 1976 in which all 73 passengers died, walks Miami streets a free man, though the U.S. Justice Department once called him the most dangerous terrorist in the Western Hemisphere.

“Hard-line exiles and their supporters play a large role in shaping public opinion and debate in Miami,” he added. To try the Five there was “a clear violation of their right to have a trial free of outside influences that were prejudiced against them.”