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Landmark Decision Overturns Cuba 5 Convictions

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A federal appellate court in Atlanta overturned the convictions of the Cuba 5 and ordered a new trial on the basis that the men could not get a fair trial in the right-wing Cuban exile stronghold of Miami. The five were accused of spying for Cuba. We speak with Leonard Weinglass, one of the lawyers for the Cuba 5. [includes rush transcript]

It is being called a historic decision in the case of the Cuba 5-five men hailed in Cuba as heroes and labeled spies by the US government. On Tuesday, a federal appellate court in Atlanta overturned their convictions and ordered a new trial. The five were accused of spying for Cuba. In its ruling, the Court said the men could not get a fair trial in the right-wing Cuban exile stronghold of Miami.

In 1998, Ruben Campa, Rene Gonzalez, Gerardo Hernandez, Luis Medina and Antonio Guerrero were arrested in Florida and were tried and convicted of espionage, conspiracy and related charges. They were accused of spying on Cuban-American exile leaders and U.S. military bases and convicted in December of 2001. Gerardo Hernandez was also convicted of conspiracy to commit murder for engineering the shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996. Brothers to the Rescue is a violent anti-Castro, Cuban exile group that has regularly attacked the island nation.

The five spent almost three years in jail between their arrest and the beginning of their trial. Three of the men were given life sentences while the other two were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Yesterday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions and essentially agreed with the defense that bias in Miami against Cuban President Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution stopped the defendants from getting a fair trial. In its ninety-three page opinion, the court wrote, “The entire community is sensitive to and permeated by concerns for the Cuban exile population in Miami. A new trial was mandated by the perfect storm created when the surge of pervasive community sentiment and extensive publicity both before and during the trial merged with the improper prosecutorial references.”

  • Leonard Weinglass, long time civil-rights attorney and one of the lawyers for the Cuba 5.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Leonard Weinglass. He’s a long-time civil rights attorney and one of the lawyers for the Cuba 5. Welcome to Democracy Now!

LEONARD WEINGLASS: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, are you surprised by this verdict?

LEONARD WEINGLASS: We were surprised. Clearly, the facts and the evidence were in our favor, but in the climate of the courts today, we weren’t sure that those facts and the law would be applied, but they were, and they were vigorously applied in this decision.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is a decision by the Federal Appeals Court in Atlanta that reverses the convictions of the five men. Can you talk about what’s in these 93 pages, and what happens to the men now?

LEONARD WEINGLASS: Yes. First I’d like to say that this opinion is a first time that an appellate court has reversed a federal judge on the question of venue. It never happened before in our history. And what they did in this 93-page opinion is they analyzed completely the answers given by the 168 jurors who were questioned. They analyzed the history in Miami. They pointed to the report by Human Watch.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch.

LEONARD WEINGLASS: Yeah. Human Rights Watch, which ordinarily examines human rights issues in foreign countries, but looked at one city in the United States, the city of Miami, and found it wanting in terms of civil liberties, particularly towards those who harbor even neutral opinions on Cuba. And so, they analyzed the community. They analyzed the jury. They analyzed the way the prosecutors handled this case, telling the jurors over again, three times, that they came here to destroy the United States, when there was no evidence of that whatsoever. They came here to monitor the activities of groups that were attacking Cuba. So, in a complete comprehensive analysis, they looked at the dynamics of prejudice and bias in Miami directed at the five. And they found in the first time the federal court has so found that the federal judge was wrong in not changing the venue.

AMY GOODMAN: What about some of the questions of the jurors that they analyzed, the jurors that ended up in this jury, that convicted the five men?

LEONARD WEINGLASS: Well, of course, they selected 12, and these were 12 of the 168 who indicated that they could be the most fair, and to give you an example of what happened, the lead juror, the foreman of the jury, said that he felt that Fidel Castro was a communist dictator and that he would be pleased the day that he would be removed. That is about as neutral a statement as they could get from these 168 jurors. The number two juror agreed with that. His daughter happened to be an F.B.I. agent and had been for ten years. The number three juror was married to an I.N.S. agent. The number four juror was married to a fellow who left Cuba after the revolution and came to live in the United States, and so on down through the list of 12. But these were the fairest of the 168. I must say that just three jurors said that they felt that there was some good and some bad about Cuba, and that they could be neutral. Those three jurors were removed by the government.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Leonard Weinglass, one of the attorneys for the Cuba 5. We have been following the militant Cuban exile, Luis Posada Carriles, who is now being held in a Texas jail. They mentioned Posada in this decision.

LEONARD WEINGLASS: Yes. They did. In reviewing the evidence of the case, out of the 93 pages, 20 pages were involved in a review of the evidence, and in footnote 170, they reviewed the fact that in the course of the trial, it was pointed out that one of the operatives of the paramilitary groups had met with Carriles, who was a known terrorist, and that’s in the official record now of the opinion of the case. And so, they did talk about the evidence that the defendants brought up in the case, evidence which showed the necessity — and they used that defense — the necessity of their coming to the United States in order to protect their country from these attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Orlando Bosch? How does he fit in?

LEONARD WEINGLASS: Orlando Bosch is not mentioned, but the Orlando Bosch case is a model of the hypocrisy of the American policy toward terrorism. Orlando Bosch, the Department of Justice said, is a leading terrorist in the western hemisphere. He now lives in Cuba. He walks his dog every morning —


LEONARD WEINGLASS: In Miami. I’m sorry. He walks his dog every morning near to the courthouse, where the case was tried. He was a man who was convicted in Miami of firing a bazooka at a Polish freighter in the harbor. He is a man who’s implicated in the shoot down of the commercial aircraft, the Cuban commercial aircraft, and he applied to have permanent residency in the United States. Department of Justice ruled that he was not qualified, because he’s a known terrorist. The President of the United States overruled the Department of Justice at the insistence of his son, who was Jeb Bush, and the President was Bush, Sr. But Mr. Bosch was given permanent residency in the United States where he currently lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Hasn’t he admitted to trying to kill Castro.

LEONARD WEINGLASS: He has admitted on television, actually, that he has made several attempts to kill Castro.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Leonard Weinglass, one of the attorneys for the Cuba 5. So explain now the significance of this decision, The convictions of the five men have been reversed. They have been in jail for some, what, seven years now?


AMY GOODMAN: But they don’t — they’re not just freed. Now this case has to be retried?

LEONARD WEINGLASS: Well, there’s a demand being made that they be freed. They have served seven years in maximum security prisons.


LEONARD WEINGLASS: Spread out throughout the United States. They’re not together. One is in California, one is in Colorado, one is in Wisconsin, one is in Georgia, and one is in Texas. They’re as far as removed as you possibly can be. Two have not been allowed to see their wives, in violation of international human rights law. And we are asking that they be freed immediately, since they were now wrongfully convicted, and they have already served seven years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they were tried — convicted of serving as unregistered agents of a foreign government, namely, Cuba?

LEONARD WEINGLASS: That’s one count, and that count carries a five-year penalty. If they’re guilty of that count, they should all be freed immediately, since they have already served more than five years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is Cuba — how is Cuba responding now? Certainly, they have made this a major case. There are groups all over the country that have been fighting to free the Cuba 5. What’s been the response from Havana?

LEONARD WEINGLASS: Well, first, Havana is elated about the result. They were elated when a month ago the U.N. working group on arbitrary detentions also called for the release of the five, pointing to the fact that they were tried in an unfair atmosphere in Miami, a position that has now been validated by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. So the Cubans are actively calling for the release of the five, and they are very gratified and pleased with the result in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to any of the men, the imprisoned men?

LEONARD WEINGLASS: I spoke to my client, Antonio Guerrero. He is in a maximum security prison, serving life in Colorado. And I have to say, when I mention their sentences, these sentences were extraordinary. These five men came to the United States unarmed, without guns, without explosives. During the period of time that they were here they committed no acts of sabotage. There was no property damage. Nobody was injured. They took no secrets of the United States. This is the first conspiracy to commit espionage trial in our history where not a single page of classified information was involved. These five men were focused on the paramilitary groups that function in the United States and attack their country.

AMY GOODMAN: Who decides whether these men will now go free?

LEONARD WEINGLASS: The next move is up to the Department of Justice. And they’re going to have to make their decision as to what they do. They have 21 days to decide whether or not to appeal this decision to the entire 11th Circuit. And then they could attempt to appeal it to the United States Supreme Court. Given the way the decision came down, the way it’s written — by the way, it’s the most extensive decision in the history of the United States on the question of venue. It is a landmark historic document. It will be cited by lawyers from here on in in all the terror trials that are being committed. It will be used by law schools as a study vehicle. This is an amazing opinion, which analyzes the dynamic of prejudice that an accused faces in a courtroom in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Leonard Weinglass, I want to thank you very much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll certainly continue to follow this case and what happens to these five men who currently remain in prison.

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