A U.S. Appeals Court has overturned the convictions of five Cuban men convicted of spying on the United States and ordered a new trial in the case. The men were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms in 2001.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 93 page order overturning the convictions, saying the five Cuban espionage agents did not receive a fair trial because of strong community sentiment against them in Miami's large Cuban-exile community.
A federal court jury convicted the five men in June of 2001 on espionage charges. Of the five men, three received life terms in prison. Additionally one of the five, Gerardo Hernandez, who prosecutors say was the leader of the group, was found guilty on murder conspiracy charges for his role in the deaths of four men in 1996. The four were on board two planes that were shot down by Cuban fighter jets as they patrolled the Florida straits looking for Cuban refugees. Mr. Hernandez's murder conspiracy conviction was also overturned.
Lawyers for the five men hailed the decision saying even though there were no Cuban exiles on the jury, prosecutors made inflammatory remarks in their closing arguments that led to the convictions. Paul McKenna the attorney for Gerardo Hernandez said the appeals court ruling upholds basic constitutional rights.
"The core of our constitution is the fundamental right that everybody gets a fair trial. These five men did not," said Mr. McKenna.
At their trial the five Cubans admitted espionage activities, but said they were spying on exile groups in Miami, and not on the United States. The five were part of a larger group of 14 individuals detained by U.S. authorities in what came to be known as the wasp network. Several of the spies were employed at or near U.S. military installations in Florida. Cuban officials were quoted by news agencies on Tuesday as saying the appeals court ruling validates the Cuban government position that the trial was unjust.
Reaction in Miami's Cuban exile community to the appeals court ruling has been overwhelmingly negative, with many exile figures calling the ruling an outrage. Jose Basulto the head of Brothers to the Rescue, whose two planes where shot down in 1996, said he believes the men did in fact receive a fair trial.
"I am very disappointed," he said. "These men were found guilty by a jury of their peers. I believe that if they are retried again, they will again be found guilty, even though it might be done outside of Miami."
Defense attorney's say they will seek the immediate release of their clients who remain in prison. They also say they will seek a change of venue for any new trial. Lawyers for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami who prosecuted the case issued a brief statement saying only that they are reviewing the opinion issued by the appeals court.