WASHINGTON - The United States returned 15 migrants to Cuba Monday after receiving assurances they would not be executed for hijacking a government-owned boat that was intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard, U.S. officials said.
State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said the migrants were freed after the Cuban government informed the Bush administration they would be tried on charges of armed robbery and kidnapping three guards.
He said Cubans also said informally July 17 and later in a diplomatic note that no individual returned would be sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for any act related to the seizure of the vessel.
Reeker said the Department of Homeland Security interviewed all 15 and determined they were not eligible for U.S. protection because they had committed acts of violence in Cuba as well as against Coast Guard personnel who boarded the boat Wednesday.
The migrants were taken aboard a cutter after their vessel was stopped in international waters in the Straits of Florida. The Cuban government said its coast guard chased the 36-foot vessel into Bahamian waters Tuesday after it was taken from the communist island.
Even though the migrants were not eligible for protection, Reeker said the administration felt it had to take into account the lack of due process that resulted in the execution of three Cuban hijackers who took over a ferryboat in April.
“At that time you will recall that we, as well as many other countries, condemned the Cuban authorities for failing to provide for a fair and transparent trial for the individuals involved in that case,” Reeker said.
He said the Cubans made clear to the administration they did not view this case as similar to the April one when three men were executed by firing squad April 11 after their conviction for hijacking a ferryboat in Havana Bay earlier that month.
Joe Garcia, executive director of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, said the incident last week was miscast as a hijacking and contended the U.S. government “has entered into complicity with the Castro regime.”