Cuban spy jailed in U.S. pins hope on appeal
by Marie Frail, July 24, 2007
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Cuban spy serving two life sentences in a U.S. high-security prison hopes an appeals court will annul convictions by a Miami jury he says was too scared to acquit him in a highly charged anti-Castro setting.
Gerardo Hernandez told Reuters by telephone from prison that he was spying on paramilitary exile groups in Miami, not the United States, when he and four members of his so-called Wasp Network were arrested by the FBI in 1998.
His mission was to prevent "terrorist" attacks on Cuba, he said.
"You can be a terrorist in this country if you are a terrorist against Cuba, no problem with that. Those are the good terrorists for the U.S. government," he said from Victorville Penitentiary in California.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta will hold oral hearings on August 20 in an appeal that could reopen the case of the "Cuban Five" convicted in 2001 of spying on behalf of Fidel Castro's Communist government.
Prosecutors accused the Cuban Five of trying to infiltrate U.S. military installations to obtain secrets. One did work as a janitor at a Boca Chica Navy training base near Key West.
Hernandez, 42, was also indicted for conspiracy to commit murder based on the allegation he passed information to Havana that led to the downing in 1996 by a Cuban MiG jet of two small planes operated by a Miami-based Cuban exile group and flying near Cuba. Four people were killed.
Hernandez says that was no secret: the exile group Brothers to the Rescue, which had overflown Havana dropping leaflets, announced its plan to fly toward Cuba in a news conference.
"If you go to the worst espionage cases in U.S. history, those people got life sentences for stealing very secret and damaging documents for foreign powers," he said. "I got life for stealing nothing."
Hernandez says jurors in his trial, who unanimously found him guilty, were intimidated by the media in Miami, the bastion of the Cuban exile community.
A three-judge panel from the Atlanta court overturned the convictions against the five men in 2005. It said intense publicity and "pervasive prejudice" against Castro had prevented them from getting a fair trial in Miami.
But that decision was reversed by the full court last year.
In Cuba, the jailed spies are officially portrayed as national heroes cast as victims of the hostility U.S. governments have held for Cuba since Castro took power in a 1959 revolution.
Hernandez said he was not appealing a conviction for using false names and documents, or for not registering with the U.S. government as an agent of a foreign country, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.
"That's right, we were working for Cuba. We always recognized that," said Hernandez, an international relations graduate and amateur cartoonist.
The hardest thing in prison is not seeing his wife, Adriana Perez, he said. They last saw each other a decade ago. U.S. authorities have denied her a visa to travel to see him.
Hernandez is allowed to write letters and gets 300 minutes of telephone time a month but is barred from sending e-mails.
"They are condemning us never to see them again," Perez said in Havana.
Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly, says the five agents were subjected to "cruel and absurd" treatment in the United States for not switching sides and denouncing the Cuban government.
"They have not been able to break them. They have made them and their families suffer," he said in an interview.
The Cuban Five were put in solitary confinement for the first 17 months after their arrest, which obstructed their contact with defense lawyers, a fact that in itself would warrant a retrial, Alarcon said.
By contrast, he said, Cuban-American businessman Santiago Alvarez, who was found in possession of an arsenal of guns, grenade launchers, mortars and explosives, was jailed last year in Miami for three years and recently got a reduced sentence.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Havana)
For info on the Campaign to Free the Five see www.freethefive.org.