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Posted January 14, 2005 by Dana Garrett in Castro's Cuba

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By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press Writer

HAVANA - The trial for 23 men accused of crashing a stolen bus through the gates of the Mexican Embassy nearly three years ago ended Thursday with a government prosecutor urging 20-year sentences for the alleged ringleaders.

A ruling in the case is expected in about a month. The trial, which lasted just two days, was closed to international media.

The prosecutor raised the recommended sentences for Pedro Plasencia Achon and Ramon Mendez Sosa, the alleged ringleaders of the February 2002 assault that sparked a diplomatic crisis. They both originally faced 12-year sentences.

“The prosecutor asked for 20 years for the two of them ... I’ve never seen lawyers fight so much,” Ariel Rodriguez, whose brother Michel Rodriguez is among the 23 defendants, told reporters after leaving the Popular Municipal Tribunal in Havana, where two relatives per defendant were allowed into the trial.

Besides the two men’s recommended sentences, the prosecutor sought 12-year sentences for 10 of the defendants, 10 years for six others and five years for the remaining five.

The men allegedly crashed a stolen bus through the embassy gates amid a wave of rumors the mission was issuing visas to all Cubans who showed up. They demanded visas and refused to leave. Cuban police arrested them after two days in a pre-dawn eviction.

A prosecution document obtained by The Associated Press says Plasencia Achon sparked the episode, as the first to try to penetrate police barriers surrounding the embassy. He then allegedly led an attempt to hijack a construction company truck, but the driver resisted.

“Persisting in their violent intentions,” Plasencia Achon and several of the other defendants seized a bus and rammed it through the embassy gates, the document said. Other men followed the bus inside.

About six of the defendants had prior criminal records, and more than 15 of them were unemployed, according to the document.

Cuban authorities accused the U.S. government’s Radio Marti of provoking the occupation by repeatedly broadcasting a sound bite by then-Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda saying the embassy’s doors “are open” to Cuban citizens.

Officials for Radio Marti, operated in Miami by anti-Castro Cuban exiles, denied provoking the rumors, which drew hundreds of people to the mission seeking visas.

Many of those who crowded outside the mission said they hoped to get visas to Mexico, then later emigrate to the United States in hope of finding well-paying jobs and being reunited with relatives there.

Castaneda later said his comments, made during a visit to Florida, were taken out of context.

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