Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

Q&A: “We Demand the Repeal of the Cuban Five’s Sentences”

Patricia Grogg interviews U.S. activist GLORIA LA RIVA

HAVANA, Jun 24 2010 (IPS) - “There are many people in the United States who believe in justice and actively support the Five, fighting every day for their freedom,” says labour and community activist Gloria La Riva, the head of the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, responding to questions about her total dedication to the cause.

Activities at the II International Youth Meeting in solidarity with the Cuban Five.  Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Activities at the II International Youth Meeting in solidarity with the Cuban Five. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The five Cuban intelligence officers Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González were arrested in 1998 and convicted of espionage and other illegal activities in the United States and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 2001, which they are currently serving in different maximum security prisons in the U.S.

“These men did something that really deserves support: they sacrificed their personal lives to defend their people and any possible victim of terrorism. They should never have been put in prison,” the socialist activist said in an email interview with IPS.

The five men say they were monitoring the activities of Cuban-American exile groups that have been linked to previous acts of violence in Cuba, and denied spying on the United States or gathering and transmitting classified military secrets.

They also denied involvement in a 1996 shoot-down of two planes that resulted in the deaths of four men.

On Feb. 24, 1996, the Cuban Air Force shot down two of three planes flying away from Cuba in international airspace. The incident resulted in the deaths of two pilots and two passengers belonging to the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue, a right-wing anti-Castro group that worked to rescue those fleeing the island in rafts and which dropped pro-democracy pamphlets on Cuba.

One of the five, Gerardo Hernández, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, in connection with the deaths.

In 2005, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions declared that the deprivation of liberty of the five men was arbitrary and urged the U.S. government to take steps to remedy the situation.

Q: So you are sure of the innocence of the five men? A: Yes, they were not planning to hurt our country, but were monitoring the network of terrorist groups that had been attacking Cuba since the triumph of the revolution (in 1959).

Since the Five are in prisons in the U.S., people who live in this country have the duty to make every effort to get them released.

Q: Are there any legal channels left? How do you see the situation of Gerardo Hernández, who received two life sentences on charges of conspiracy to commit murder? A: Unfortunately, the “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act” signed into law by “(former president Bill) Clinton (1993-2001) in 1996 permanently restricted the right to appeal for people on death row in the United States.

The law limits the number of habeas corpus petitions that can be filed by death row inmates to just one, after the final appeal, and gives them only one year to do so.

So, since the last step for Gerardo was when the Supreme Court refused on Jun. 15, 2009 to hear an appeal on behalf of the Cuban Five, he only had until Jun. 14 this year to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Gerardo’s in a very difficult situation.

Q: What situation are the other four in? A: The sentences of Fernando, Ramón and Antonio were reduced in October and December 2009. Their release dates are: René, Oct. 7, 2011; Fernando, Feb. 27, 2014; Antonio, Sept. 18, 2017; and Ramón, Oct. 30, 2024. But we must not accept these dates as unalterable; we all have to fight harder and harder to get them out sooner. Q: What are the Committee’s most recent activities on behalf of the Five? A: One of the most important things that we are currently involved in is an investigation of journalists who were receiving payments from the federal government while they covered the case of the Five in a very hostile and damaging manner.

A lot of people have been working on this, it’s a collective effort by the national committee and supporters around the country and abroad.

Although the payments to the reporters were discovered by a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request in 2006, it only covered information from the 2001-2006 period. Through our work, we discovered the secret payments that affected the Five. That information now forms part of Gerardo’s last appeal, the habeas corpus petition.

Q: Do you see the secret payments as illegal? And if so, why? A: When the government propaganda stations were created, to influence people in other countries with their broadcasting, some restrictions on the stations and their programming were also established.

For example, the (1948) federal Smith-Mundt Act prohibits distribution of the “information” within the United States — basically an admission that it is propaganda.

We believe these stations should not exist, that they meddle with and violate the sovereignty of other nations, including Cuba.

But if Radio and TV Martí, mouthpieces for the counter-revolution, are banned from broadcasting within the U.S., then there is nothing legal about secretly paying journalists in Miami to work at these media outlets while covering the arrest and trial of the Five for the Miami audience, where the legal proceedings were taking place in a hostile, vengeful climate.

For that reason, we are demanding that the sentences handed down to the Five be immediately overturned. In this effort, pressure on the government in Washington is crucial.

A: Are there precedents, that is, other cases in which secret payments were made to influence a jury while a trial was going on?

Q: I don’t know of any. Miami is such an unusual city, as the centre of operations of the far right, that the terrorists have been able to operate openly. It’s the worst place in the world for a trial against someone who defends Cuba. Holding the trial there guaranteed the government that the defendants would be convicted of every charge against them.

Besides, in the United States, after a sentence is handed down, no matter how unfair it is, it’s extremely difficult to get it overturned. The courts tend to not question the politics or ruling of a judge.

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