(c) Tom Graham https://www.flickr.com/photos/tgraham/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/ Edited for shape.
Catch-22, Cuban style
Tonight (Wednesday 3 December), the traditional annual Vigil for the Cuban Five will take place outside the US Embassy in London. The gathering, now in its 8th year, calls on the US to honour calls for justice for the Five, all victims of the years old tension between the superpower and its island neighbour. This year, however, one might hope the UK Government is listening too, for while British people have faithfully gathered to offer support for the Five over the years, this year our government hasn’t been quite so helpful.
For those who don’t know, the Cuban – or Miami – Five are a group of Cuban agents, some with American citizenship, who were arrested in 1998 by the US for conspiracy to commit espionage after they monitored the activities of Cuban-American groups in Florida. Cuban exiles in Miami were suspected of carrying out attacks on Cuban soil, including a string of hotel bombings, and the Five were sent to infiltrate them. When the Cuban authorities presented a dossier to the FBI, outlining the findings of their investigation, the FBI responded by taking no action against the alleged terrorists, but instead arrested those who had provided the evidence. The group were sentenced for between 15 years and, in one case, double life terms after prosecutors claimed a link between information gathered by one of the group, Gerardo Hernandez, and the fatal shooting-down of a light aircraft that had violated Cuban airspace.
Over the years, however, enough evidence has emerged of irregularities in the legal proceedings to cast considerable doubts on the fairness of the trial. Earlier this year, supporters of the Five’s case gathered together in London an International Commission of legal experts and witnesses to review the case. A panel of judges from France, India and South Africa all concurred that there were “serious concerns about whether any of [the Five] have had the full benefit of the fundamental right to a fair and speedy trial before an independent tribunal or Court”.
The Commission saw evidence that the Five were held in solitary confinement for 17 months before their trial and were denied access to some of the documents necessary for their defence. The trial itself was held in Miami, the centre of antagonism towards the Cuban regime – a location so prejudiced that three judges at the US Court of Appeal ruled that a fair trial could not be guaranteed.
Other allegations have come to light. As Amnesty International told the Commission:
“New evidence has emerged that casts even more doubt about the fairness of the trial, with information suggesting that the US systematically paid journalists hostile to Cuba to cover the trial and provide prejudicial articles in the local media asserting the guilt of the accused.”
The star witness at the Commission was to be the very first of the Five to complete his sentence. René Gonzalez was released after serving 13 years and is now living in Cuba. Understandably, the Commission organisers viewed his personal experiences as key to examining the way the treatment of the prisoners affected their defence and that his participation was therefore crucial.
Sadly, this was not a view shared by the UK Government. On 3 March René was refused entry to the UK on the grounds that he had previously been convicted for an offence carrying a sentence of more than four years, a standing visa rule. However, the rules allow for entry under “exceptional circumstances”: attendance at a Commission intended to investigate the fairness of the very conviction being used to justify refusal of a visa might seem a perfect example. Alas, this ‘Catch 22’ ruling meant René could only discuss his case via Skype. As TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said at the time:
“That the international enquiry is precisely being held into the legality or otherwise of his own conviction surely represents exceptional circumstances. To dismiss his contribution to a commission examining what remains a deeply controversial conviction criticised by many, including Amnesty International, suggests a limited examination of the issues by those responsible for the decision, and compounds what many see as a miscarriage of justice.”
The Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC) appealed against the decision through the courts without success, but when René was invited back to the UK by 27 Members of Parliament there were high hopes that such an official invitation might supply the “compelling” reasons for issuing a visa that were judged absent previously, hopes that were – again – dashed.
The CSC was not put off and again challenged the decision. Although it ruled that the present ban could not be overturned, the Court of Appeal has kept the case ‘alive’, according to the CSC, who say that the Court will discuss whether René should be given exceptional permission to enter the UK, and:
“One cause for … an exception to the [visa ban for prisoners] rule would be if the original trial and sentencing were deemed to be ‘politically motivated’. This means … we will be discussing the fairness of the original trial … including the payment of journalists to prejudice the initial jury.”
So the Government may, in blocking René’s attendance at an unofficial Commission, have inadvertently forced the issue to be fully discussed in the British courts. If the Court rules that René’s conviction was politically motivated, the Government might just consider that a bit of flexibility would have saved them considerable embarrassment.
The Cuba Solidarity Campaign is fundraising to cover the court costs of the ongoing action. Please support them if you can.