In the late nineties the Cuban government sent five men to monitor Miami-based terrorist activity, after an alleged tip off by the FBI.
Their fate would become key in the history of Cuba-U.S. relations.
The men, who came to be known as the Cuban Five, were arrested and imprisoned on September 12, 1998 and convicted in Miami in 2001. The men accepted arrest without resistance and none were carrying weapons.
They were therefore held without bail for 33 months between arrest and trial. They were kept in solitary confinement for 17 months and completely cut off from communication with the outside world.
Two of them are U.S. citizens, born there after their parents fled the brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
The five men are Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez.
They were accused of committing espionage against the United States, when in fact the were on a Cuban mission to Miami to follow the actions of terrorist groups based there, whom they suspected of planning on carrying out terrorist acts in Cuba.
They were charged with 26 separate crimes collectively, most being minor charges relating to false identification. The most serious charges, related to espionage and murder, carrying life sentences.
The indictment did not actually charge them with the crimes, but conspiracy to commit them.
This meant that the prosecution did not have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the men committed these crimes.
What were Cubans doing?
The Cubans were in Miami, not to bring down the American government, nor even monitor American activity, but rather infiltrate and monitor the activities of a group of Cuban exiles who could be planning terrorist activities
The five were part of the “Wasp Network” from the Cuban intelligence agency, who were working undercover to gather information on groups like the notorious Alpha-66 group, an organization that had existed from the start of the Cuban Revolution with the aim of overthrowing it.
There was hard evidence, presented at the trial by the defense, proving links from the groups under surveillance by the Cuban Five to assassination attempts, as well as a Havana bombing .
They also showed how they had infiltrated some of the other Miami-based organizations, and how U.S. law enforcement had failed to act on evidence turned over to them by Cuban authorities before their arrest.
Evidence was presented showing the only military information to which the Five had access was publicly available.
Furthermore, they presented testimonies from high-ranking former U.S. military and intelligence officials that Cuba poses no military threat to the United States.
The lopsided trial
The trial in 2001 was conducted in Miami, a place which to this day is known as the most fervently anti-Cuban place in the world. Many of the Cuban exiles living there are supporters of the Batista dictatorship and wish to see U.S.-style rule in the communist island nation.
An unprecedented propaganda campaign was launched against the five individuals, who could not defend themselves as they were completely isolated from the outside world for a year and a half.
As Latin American sociologist Dr. Lisandro Perez wrote, “the possibility of selecting twelve citizens of Miami-Dade County who can be impartial in a case involving acknowledged agents of the Cuban government is virtually zero.”
One of the defense lawyers for the men pointed out that the anti-Cuban climate in the state created the conditions for an unfair trial. The prosecution said that Miami was a cosmopolitan and unbiased location.
As Perez has outlined, the jury was drawn from a group of people who had “exile ideology,” which favours the U.S. Many polls confirm this. Even today, U.S. politicians keep up their anti-Cuban rhetoric in aim of appeasing the population of Miami, a crucial vote-winning region.
In 2010 Amnesty International referred to the legal process carried out as an “unfair trial,” the only one in the United States from that particular report. The report concluded that the prejudicial impact of publicity about the case in Miami could have impacted the result.
Numerous human rights groups worldwide supported calls for a review of the case by the U.S. authorities through the clemency process, or other appropriate means.
The case was reviewed by the Court of Appeals in 2005, and made the decision to hold another trial, but this was later overturned by a higher court.
The 2005 Court of Appeals decision summarizes the propaganda campaign before and during the trial and cites it as one of the reasons leading the panel “to vacate the convictions and order a new trial.”
Miami, it was ruled then, was not a location for a fair trial. As the judges said “the evidence submitted in support of the motions for change of venue was massive.”
The convictions of the Five were reinstated, although later court decisions reduced the sentences of three of the Five — Fernando Gonzalez, Ramon Labañino and Antonio Guerrero — in October and December, 2009.
Human Rights Violations Against the Cuban Five
There have been multiple accusations of human rights violations against the Five.
Firstly, the imprisonment of the group has been deemed arbitrary by a United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 2005, and Nobel Laureates, EU Parliamentarians, and prominent citizens have been outspoken critics.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, noted that the wives of the imprisoned men, Olga Salanueva and Adriana Perez, have been repeatedly denied visas to visit their husbands in prison, which violates international law. Salanueva was deported back to Cuba, and Pererz was detained in the United States, even though she had a valid visa.
The Cuban men endured more solitary confinement in 2001, prior to their pre-sentence hearings, and in 2003 they were also dumped in isolation cells, after the Justice department claimed they were still threats to U.S. national security.
During the period the prisoners were denied contact with their family and lawyers which is in clear violation of domestic and international law.
Free the Cuban Five
Although the men were offered some kind of trial in the procedural sense, there are serious concerns about the fairness of the proceedings and the manner of their convictions, in particular the prejudicial impact of the heavy negative publicity of their case on the jury in Miami.