CATHERINE WILSON | Associated Press
MIAMI - They are celebrated as heroes in their homeland, and as spies in the nation where they sit in prison. Thousands have marched for them in Cuba, while prosecutors in America brand them as agents of Fidel Castro.
Five Cubans who were convicted in 2001 on charges of trying to infiltrate U.S. military bases and Cuban exile groups in South Florida have their appeal scheduled Wednesday.
The Havana-trained agents are challenging their convictions, sentences and even the location of the trial in Miami, the largest Cuban community outside Havana. They are serving sentences ranging from 15 years to life.
Attorney Leonard Weinglass, who represented convicted agent Antonio Guerrero, called the verdict in Miami “entirely predictable,” blaming the outcome on community prejudice and hostility about hot-button exile issues.
The agents’ case has attracted international attention. “Free the Five” committees in nine U.S. cities arranged rallies for their release just before the court hearing.
Calling themselves “Cuban patriots,” the agents denounced their trial after sentencing as “blatantly political” and accuse anti-Castro exile extremists of causing thousands of deaths and injuries since Castro took power in 1959.
The spies have the support of former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Argentina’s Adolfo Perez Esquivel, 1980 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker has denounced the trial as a miscarriage of justice.
The defense position that prosecutors “made inflammatory appeals to patriotism” and “played to and exploited community prejudice and committed numerous acts of misconduct is untrue,” lead prosecutor Caroline Miller responded in court papers.
All five agents were convicted in June 2001 of serving as unregistered agents of a foreign government. Two spies charged with targeting U.S. military installations from Key West to Tampa insist they dealt only with “open source” intelligence, or openly available information.
Weinglass noted that three of the Cuban spies ended up with the same life sentences as two American spies who actually divulged top secrets: Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. “This is the first espionage case without a single page of classified information,” Weinglass said.
The Cuban spies, also dubbed the Wasp Network, shared encrypted computer disks, transmitted radio messages to Cuba and traveled on false passports in a low-budget operation that left them begging their Havana handlers for cash.
A second target was an assortment of militant anti-Castro exiles suspected of playing roles in a Cuban hotel bombing spree in 1997, who repeatedly flew into Cuban airspace in 1994 and 1995 and who launched covert attacks in Cuba.
Ringleader Gerardo Hernandez was sent to prison for life for murder conspiracy in a missile attack on two Brothers to the Rescue planes that were shot down in international airspace north of the Cuban coast in 1996.
His attorney Paul McKenna claims the verdict was based on over-the-top patriotic and emotional appeals by prosecutors mentioning Pearl Harbor and the Holocaust and flawed jury instructions.
In addition to Hernandez and Guerrero, the defendants also include Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez, who are not related. They were all arrested in September of 1998, and placed in solitary confinement for 17 months.
ON THE NET
Free the Five: http://www.freethefive.org
Cuban government site on convicted spies: http://www.antiterroristas.cu