Tuesday, April 26, 2005; 4:10 PM
HAVANA (Reuters) - A Cuban court handed down prison sentences of up to 18 years for 23 men who stormed the Mexican Embassy three years ago in a bid to flee the country, a human rights group said on Tuesday.
The young men rammed a bus through the embassy gates on Feb. 27, 2002. Cuban special forces later entered the compound at the request of Mexican diplomats and took away the asylum-seekers.
Pedro Plasencia, whom prosecutors said master-minded the break-in, received the toughest sentence of 18 years, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation said.
The others got sentences ranging from three to 15 years for violating a diplomatic mission, damage to property and theft of the bus.
The jail terms were called “excessive” by the head of the rights group, veteran activist Elizardo Sanchez.
“The accused hurt nobody and the Mexican government made no claim for minor damages to the metal gate,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said President Fidel Castro’s Communist government had sought severe punishment to deter new bids for asylum. There was no word from authorities on the sentencing.
The incident was sparked by rumors Mexico was offering exit visas to Cubans, which drew a crowd of several hundred people outside the embassy. The hijacked bus sped up the street and plowed through the gates that night.
The asylum-seekers were peacefully expelled and led away by a special police unit after a tense 30-hour stand-off.
Mexico requested the police operation, calling the intruders criminals who did not request asylum on political grounds but merely wanted to leave the island for economic reasons.
Cuba said the crowd that sought to enter the compound was spurred by the U.S.-funded anti-Castro station Radio Marti, based in Miami, which had distorted remarks by Mexico’s foreign minister at the time, Jorge Castaneda, that his country would “open” its embassy to Cubans.