Court overturns unfair convictions of the Cuban Five

In a monumental decision on the case of the Cuban Five—five Cuban nationals who were convicted on trumped up charges in a 2001 Miami trial—the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions and ordered a new trial in a unanimous decision on Aug. 9.

The Cuban Five: (from top left) Ramón Labañino, Gerardo Hernández, Fernando González, René González and Antonio Guerrero.

Photo: Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

The five men, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, René González, and Fernando González, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 years to double life. With the recent Court of Appeals’ ruling, these sentences are now revoked. The Five will remain detained where they are currently being held during at least the first 21-day period of appeals open to federal prosecutors.

The National Committee to Free the Cuban Five organized a press conference just hours after the ruling was delivered. Some of the Five’s attorneys—Leonard Weinglass, Richard Klugh, Paul McKenna and Phil Horowitz—and Gloria La Riva, coordinator of the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, presented statements about the significance of the ruling and then took questions from the press. There was a considerable number, including the Associated Press, the French News Agency, the Spanish news service EFE, Reuters, Time magazine, Radio Habana Cuba, Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel, La Jornada, Chicago Tribune, Channel 41 Miami, and Socialism and Liberation magazine. Excerpts from the press conference are printed below.

Gloria La Riva: The National Committee to Free the Cuban Five is extremely happy to announce that the Cuban Five have won a new trial. This is a huge victory! We are ecstatic about this decision.

For ourselves and the many supporters around the world, for the 11 million Cuban people who have been struggling for their freedom, we can only imagine the joy of the Cuban Five, which we are sharing today. The decision confirms that the Cuban Five are completely innocent; we have known this all along.

Phil Horowitz (attorney for René González): On behalf of René González and his co-defendants and compatriots, we welcome the 11th Circuit’s opinion, and we look forward to having a new trial in a proper venue. We are confident that René and his friends will be vindicated.

Richard Klugh (one of the attorneys for Fernando González): On behalf of the Public Defender’s Office and my client, Fernando González, we feel that it’s a very courageous and fair decision by the Court of Appeals, and we’re very gratified by the Court’s rigorous adherence to the rule of law. It’s a good day for the rule of law. I’m very happy for the defendants and for everyone involved in this case.

Leonard Weinglass (appeals attorney for Antonio Guerrero): First I want to express, on behalf of Antonio Guerrero and the Five, as well as the legal defense team, our gratification and pleasure at this opinion. This is really a historic opinion.

Never before in the history of the United States has a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s finding with respect to venue. This is a first. And in writing their opinion, which covers just one issue of the eight or nine issues we raised on appeal—that issue being venue—the Court analyzed in great detail virtually every facet of that issue in the case: the community, the publicity, the attitude of the jurors, the actions of the prosecutor, and the motions that were made during and after trial. Its analysis is as extensive and detailed on the issue of venue as any written opinion by any court anywhere. And so this is a remarkable decision. We all feel very appreciative and grateful for this decision.

Paul McKenna (attorney for Gerardo Hernández): Well, it’s been a very long, seven-year trip with a lot of twists and turns. I have to say that there were many times when I doubted the outcome. The one person that never doubted this outcome was my client, Gerardo Hernández, who told me in letters and telephone calls over the last seven years that we would prevail. And he was right.

For my part, the first question that I want to address is my client. I want to get him out of that maximum security prison in California because he’s not convicted of anything anymore. He does not have any more life sentence. He’s innocent right now like he was at the beginning of the trial. We want to get him back to the Southern District of Florida.

I want to address the issue of his bail. He’s been confined for seven years. And I want to see if I can fashion some kind of a situation where he could be released from jail and live under house arrest or something—he’s been waiting for seven years, which is extraordinary! That’s what’s first on my agenda.

Families of the Cuban Five at the World Youth Festival, Caracas, Venezuela, Aug. 11, 2005.

Photo: Jorge Silva

Does this ruling potentially have any other implications for other cases, or does it set a precedent of any sort for anything that’s being related to Cuba going through courtrooms in the southern district of Florida?

This is a published opinion, which means this opinion becomes part of the body of laws in the United States. This is probably one of the most extensive opinions written on the issue of venue and fair trial. It will be regarded as a landmark case in history from a legal point of view.

This case will be cited by many defendants presently facing charges, and in the future, as probably the finest example of a judicial analysis of what’s required for a fair trial in the United States. It’s the most extensive, factual analysis of what constitutes fairness in terms of a trial. I think this case will be cited frequently, will be used as a precedent, not just in southern Florida, but throughout the United States and into the future.

I think the court wrote this opinion with history in mind. And I think they were aware of the fact that they were creating a new way of analyzing and looking at the reality of bias and prejudice in the circumstances of a fair trail. I think this case will be taught in law schools and will be lectured upon in years to come. There are a few cases in our history dealing with fair trial; this will rank right up with the best of them and the most important one.

McKenna: In its decision, the Court of Appeals went through the trial from the beginning to the end and cited all the kinds of antics that were taking place within the trial. They went through point-by-point, showing how this trial was infected with prejudice from the beginning until the end. In the final analysis they said, “we realize this is going to be a very unpopular decision, but the Constitution of the United States demands nothing less.” It protects all people’s rights. They made a point to put that in the final paragraph of the ruling.

As far as the timing of things goes, the very next thing that’s going to happen is that the defendants are going to have to be released from their places of confinement and sent back to Miami. They’ll be sent back here because the case is going to revert back to square one, just as it was before they were tried. Decisions will have to be made about bail, about where they’re going to be housed; about where the case will take place in the future. But as far as what’s going to happen in terms of the prosecution, that’s a question that has to be addressed to the new United States Attorney, Mr. Acosta.

The case of Luis Posada Carriles shows that the United States is not really fighting against terrorism. And the case of the Five shows the abuse of rights—human rights—and the abuse of the judicial process. How does the case of the Five compare to that of Posada Carriles?

La Riva:
The struggle against Washington-financed terrorism against Cuba for 46 years is not over. There will be a protest on the opening day of trial of Posada Carriles in El Paso, Texas. The ANSWER [Act Now to Stop War and End Racism] Coalition, the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, and other organizations are calling for his immediate extradition to Venezuela. He’s responsible for the killing of 73 people on a plane, a Cuban airliner in 1976. His hearing will be August 29, on Monday, although only on the issue of his immigration status. We hope all the press will be there, because there will be many people to witness our demand that he be extradited.

This is a press conference about the legal case of the Cuban Five, and the political case, too. The Five were fighting and preventing terrorism. They saved the lives of many people with their actions in the United States. This must be known throughout the country. Being innocent, we call for their immediate release.

The next step for anyone who’s supporting their case, for all the committees around the world and in the United States, will be to demand immediate entry for the two wives—Olga Salanueva (wife of René González) and Adrianna Perez (wife of Gerardo Hernández)—who’ve been denied visas repeatedly. Other family members have been given visas recently, but not frequently enough.

The case began under the Clinton administration and continued under the Bush administration. Did you detect any shift in the tenor or tone or vigor from the prosecution over that time period?

I didn’t. I thought that the prosecution was relentless from the first day until the last time I talked to them. They were that way from the beginning until now.

La Riva: It is also important to note the role that one particular person played in initiating this case. Hector Pasquera, the head of the FBI Bureau in Miami. He boasted about having demanded of Janet Reno that the Five be prosecuted. He has many links really to the whole issue of terrorism. He was seen embracing terrorists like Jose Basulto (leader of the anti-Cuban terrorist group Brothers to the Rescue) during the trial. It’s very questionable what his role was in supporting the network of terrorists in Miami; overlooking their attacks, their plots, their plans, while vigorously persecuting the anti-terrorists—the Cuban Five.

Ultimately, we are hopeful that the federal government won’t seek a new trial. The judges’ decision is unanimous, and a resounding defeat of the U.S.-backed Miami terrorist network and its supporters that persecuted the Five.

Again, we want to congratulate the attorneys for their hard work, for never giving up, and for brilliant preparation of the case. We want to thank everybody who has been involved in supporting them. We want to extend a big embrace to the wives, the mothers, the fathers, the children. We hope that the families are reunited very, very soon. Most of all, we want to give full recognition to the Cuban people who have fought for all these years and who have always said about the Five, “volverán”—“they will return.”

We, in the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, will keep struggling until the Five heroes are freed and home with their families and the Cuban people. This is the biggest victory we could imagine.

For a full transcript of the press conference visit

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