A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected the criminal convictions and sentences of five men accused of spying for the Cuban government, ruling that their 2001 trial in Miami was not fair because of a strong anti-Castro sentiment in community.
By Ihosvani Rodriguez
Posted August 9 2005, 3:40 PM EDT
In a 93-page order, a three-judge panel from the11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, cited more than a dozen incidents that took place before and during the trial to argue that Miami-Dade County was not a suitable venue for the heated controversial case.
Attorneys for the men lauded the order and called it a landmark decision that likely will be cited by attorneys seeking changes in venue. They also said the ruling could affect the way Cuban nationals charged with crimes in South Florida are tried.
In a short statement, federal prosecutors in Miami-Dade said they were reviewing the order and declined to comment any further.
A federal court jury convicted Gerardo Hernández Nordela, Ramon Labañino Salazar, Antonio Guerrero Rodríguez, Fernando González Llort and Rene González Sehwerert in June 2001 following a seven-month federal espionage trial. They are serving terms of from 15 years to life in federal prisons across the country.
In Cuba, the men are hailed as anti-terrorists and the Castro government has organized massive rallies on their behalf. A number of left-leaning organizations in the U.S. also have championed their cause.
An advisor to Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly said Tuesday that the appellate court’s decision was an important step, but Cuba wants the men released. Cuban officials also said the ruling validates their view that the trial in Miami was unjust.
In Miami, the men have been widely despised by the Cuban exile community.
The court’s decision was decried in Miami, where radio show host Ninoska Perez Castellon told listeners on Radio Mambi, 710 AM, that it was “a racist decision” against the Cuban-American community.
In the years before the trial, passions in Miami were inflamed by two incidents: The Cuban government’s shoot-down of the two Brothers to the Rescue planes and the international custody battle over Elián González. Cubans in Miami accused the spies of aiding in the downing of the planes.
The court’s order included the events and gave a narrative of a number of other incidents that occurred during the trial.
Among them, Cuban exiles staged protests during the trial and some even approached potential jury members. During his testimony, Brothers to the Rescue founder Jose Basulto accused one of the men’s attorneys of being A Cuban government official.
The appellate judges noted that their decision was not going to be a popular one.
“The court is aware that….the reversal of these convictions will be unpopular and even offensive to many citizens,” the justices wrote. “However, the court is equally mindful that those same citizens cherish and support the freedoms they enjoy in this country that are unavailable to residents of Cuba.”
Attorneys for the men said during a joint-press conference that they will be seeking an immediate release of the five from the maximum-security prisons they are housed.
“It’s been a very long 7-year trip,” said one of the attorneys, Paul McKenna. “I have to say that many times I doubted the outcome.”