23 Cubans tried over bus that rammed Mexican Embassy gate
By Vanessa Bauzá
HAVANA · Twenty-three Cuban men who tried to gain asylum at the Mexican Embassy by smashing a stolen bus through its gates three years ago faced trial on Wednesday.
Prosecutors are seeking five- to 12-year sentences for the men, most of whom have awaited trial in prison since the incident in February 2002. The trial, which was closed to the foreign media, is expected to last until Friday.
The men hijacked a Mercedes Benz city bus and rammed it into the Mexican Embassy's gardens after rumors spread in Havana that the mission was offering asylum to Cubans. During the melee, some men jumped over the embassy's walls while others climbed onto the roof of the two-story building and shouted "Viva Mexico!" and "Down with Fidel!"
The incident ended less than 48 hours later when specially trained Cuban police forces responded to a request from the Mexican government to evict the Cuban men from the embassy in a predawn operation.
The Mexican government has never pressed any charges against the men in the break-in.
At the time, the Cuban government blamed a U.S. government-funded station, Radio Marti, for sparking the melee by broadcasting statements by Mexico's foreign minister, who said the doors of the embassy "are open to all Cuban citizens."
Many of the men, who ranged from ages 16 to 40, were unemployed or working odds jobs.
On Wednesday, relatives of the defendants said the men believed the rumors that the embassy was open and jumped at the possibility of seeking visas to leave Cuba.
Pedro Plasencia, who commandeered the bus, is facing a 12-year prison sentence on charges of aggravated robbery and violating a diplomatic mission, according to court documents provided by the nongovernmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation.
His younger brother, Orestes, said he hoped the sentence would be reduced.
"If my brother doesn't want to be in this country, they should give him the possibility to leave," Plasencia, 34, said at his home in a Havana suburb. "Since they haven't, he had to look for other ways."
Plasencia said his brother sold vegetables at a farmers market and hoped to leave Cuba to join relatives in the United States.
"One way or another he will leave," Plasencia said of his brother. "He is desperate."
Mercedes Valdes, 83, said she felt both relieved and anxious that her grandson, Alexey Leal, 24, was finally having his day in court. Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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