Published in An Phoblacht on October 1, 2010
AS THE Cuban Five enter their 13th year behind bars in US jails, the international campaign for their release marked the anniversary of their imprisonment in September 1998 with demonstrations and vigils around the world, including in Ireland.
René González, Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labanino and Fernando González were arrested by the FBI 12 years ago on September 12th, after they infiltrated Miami-based right-wing Cuban paramilitary groups engaged in a campaign of violence and sabotage against Cuba.
Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, more than 3,500 Cubans have been killed in attacks by right-wing groups based in southern Florida, often acting with the active support of the US government.
During the mid-1990s, as a bombing campaign aimed at undermining Cuba’s tourism sector was being carried out by these organisations, the Cuban government deployed intelligence agents to the US to monitor these groups and gather evidence of their involvement in anti-Cuban violence to prevent future attacks.
The Cuban Government supplied this evidence to the US Government in 1998 – but instead of arresting those involved in violent criminal acts against Cuba, the FBI arrested the five men and handed them over to the Miami courts, which charged them with conspiracy to commit espionage against the US.
At a trial held in Miami – the stronghold of virulently anti-Castro organisations, politicians and media – the five men were convicted in 2001 and received sentences ranging from 15 years to a double life sentence.
The five were each held in solitary confinement for the first 17 months of their imprisonment. A UN committee and Amnesty International have condemned the conditions of their imprisonment as contravening human rights.
In a further act of cruelty, the US Government has for the past 12 years cited “national security” grounds to refuse Adriana Perez and Olga Salanueva, the wives of Gerardo Hernández and René González respectively, visas to enter the US to visit their husbands in jail.
The Cuban Government and people have led an extraordinary international campaign for the release of the Cuban Five (also known as ‘The Miami Five’).
More than 300 solidarity organisations have been established around the world to campaign for their release. The trial is the only judicial proceeding in US history to have been singled out for condemnation by the UN Human Rights Commission.
‘Perfect storm’ of bias
After being unjustly imprisoned for seven years, the five won the right to an appeal in 2005. In August that year, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta described the atmosphere in Miami during their trial in 2000-2001 as “a perfect storm” of bias. The court overturned the convictions of the Cuban Five and ordered a new trial outside of Miami.
But the Bush administration intervened. A full 12-judge session of 11th Circuit Court of Appeals court was convened to overturn the ruling and the original convictions were upheld.
The Cuban Five then tried to appeal to the US Supreme Court. Their lawyers filed 12 global ‘friends of the court’ briefs to the Supreme Court, including a brief from Ireland signed by former President Mary Robinson and 47 TDs and senators. Among other signatories of the briefs were 10 Nobel laureates, hundreds of parliamentarians, and several US and international jurist organisations.
Despite optimism that President Barack Obama would respond to the massive international pressure over the case, the Supreme Court last June refused to hear the case – without offering any explanation.
However, in a victory for the campaign, three of the five had their sentences reduced in 2008 and 2009. Ramón Labanino had his life sentence reduced to 30 years; Fernando González had his 19-year sentence reduced to 17 years and 9 months; and Antonio Guerrero had his life sentence plus 10 years reduced to 21 years and nine months.
In a joint statement after their sentences were reduced, the three noted that “the prosecutor publicly recognised the existence of a strong international movement in support of our immediate freedom that affects the image of the US judicial system”.
“The absolute political character of this process is confirmed,” they said.
The sentence of René González (15 years) was not reviewed, nor was that of Gerardo Hernández – who was sentenced to double life sentences. Hernández’s sentence, the harshest of the five, is based on unfounded allegations linking him to the shooting down of two ‘Brothers to the Rescue’ illegal flights over Cuban airspace in 2006 (while Hernández was in Miami). Brothers to the Rescue is one of the most active right-wing Cuban groups based in southern Florida.
Hernández’s lawyer, Leonard Weinglass, pointed out: “Hernández is the first person in US history to be charged for the shoot-down of an aircraft by the armed forces of another country acting in defence of their airspace.”
In June, Hernández’s lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court for a collateral appeal – a limited form of appeal based on constitutional issues – citing new evidence that emerged in 2006 that the US government was paying journalists in Miami before and during the original trial and sentencing of the Cuban Five to produce stories hostile to Cuba and the Cuban Five.
Solidarity organisations in the US are currently engaged in a legal struggle to have the journalists’ – who were supposedly independent but were on the payroll of the federal government associated with Radio and TV Marti – contracts released to the public.
Yet despite the serious implications of this information – evidence of the US Government illegally propagandising against its own population – there continues to be a virtual media blackout in the US of the case.
As the political nature of the case becomes ever more pronounced, and as the legal avenues for redressing this injustice dwindle, the need for the international campaign to pressure the Obama administration to intervene is vital.