The United States Monday repatriated 15 Cubans who had been aboard a Cuban government boat they seized at gunpoint last week and was later intercepted in international waters off the Bahamas by the U.S. Coast Guard. The return came after the Cuban government promised that anyone found guilty in the case would receive no more than 10 years in prison.
The return of the 15 Cubans followed intensive bilateral contacts climaxed by a diplomatic note from Cuba pledging the ten-year limit on any jail terms handed down in the case.
The affair began last Tuesday, when 11 Cuban men and one woman surprised three guards watching the government surveying vessel, the "Gaviota-16" in a northeastern Cuban port. They took over the vessel and headed north into the Florida Straits after tying up the guards and locking them in a cabin.
Cuba immediately denounced the seizure as a hijacking. The boat was intercepted the next day by U.S. Coast Guardsmen, who detained all those aboard pending an investigation of the case.
At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the Cubans who seized the craft were found ineligible for U.S. refugee status because of acts of violence committed in Cuba and because they had assaulted Coast Guardsmen during the intercept.
But he said U.S. officials did not immediately accede to Cuba's demand for their return, because of the case last April, in which three men who seized a ferry boat, the "Beragua" in Havana Bay and were later captured by Cuban forces, were executed a few days later after a summary trial.
Mr. Reeker said those who had been aboard the "Gaviota-16" were sent back only after both an informal and a diplomatic pledge from Cuba that they would not meet the same fate as the three in the "Beragua" case, whose executions drew world-wide condemnation:
"On July 17, Cuba volunteered an informal statement to us indicating that they did not view this case as similar, that is the new case with the "Gaviota" as similar to the "Beragua," and informed us that the accused would be tried on charges of armed robbery and kidnapping, not on charges of hijacking," said Mr. Reeker. "And that the Cuban government would insure that no individual would be sentenced to more than ten years in prison for any act committed with respect to the "Gaviota" case, and we received that communication in the form of a diplomatic note that includes their commitments with respect to the charges as I outlined."
The pledge to limit any prison terms to ten years was also reiterated in a public statement Monday by the Cuban government.
In rare expression of praise for the United States, the Cuban statement said that by returning the vessel, which went back to Cuba last week, and its occupants, the United States had made a "valuable contribution" in the fight against the hijacking of planes and boats for illegal emigration from Cuba.
But the decision to return the Cubans was condemned by Cuban-American members of Congress, who had written Secretary of State Colin Powell last week appealing for U.S. protection for them.
Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart called the repatriation "totally unacceptable" and an "inconceivable act against freedom-seeking refugees."