The Miami Herald
Aug. 06, 2003

6 of 12 hijackers sent back by U.S. are freed in Cuba

  Associated Press

  HAVANA - Police have freed six of the 12 Cubans who stole a government boat last month and were later repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard, one of the men said
  Tuesday. Their return to Cuba created an uproar in South Florida despite Havana's assurances that they would not be executed.

  Word of the release came from 51-year-old Fermín Suárez, the man who captained the boat, in a telephone interview from the central-eastern town of Nuevitas, about 340 miles east of Havana.


  Suárez said Cuban authorities let him and five others walk free, but that his 27-year-old son, Mijael Suárez, was among the six still held in the provincial capital of
  Camagüey pending trial on robbery charges.

  There was no independent confirmation of the Cubans' release from either Cuban or U.S. officials, who have not commented on the case since the first days after the July 21 repatriation.

  Cuban exile leaders in South Florida had warned that the Cubans' lives would be endangered if they were returned to their communist homeland because President Fidel Castro's government had recently executed three men who hijacked another boat in an effort to flee to the United States.

  Washington is under increasing pressure from the Cuban exile community to rethink its migration policies despite accords aimed at ensuring orderly migration between the two countries.

  Even Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took issue with the decision by his brother President Bush's administration to repatriate the 12, citing concerns about a recent crackdown on the opposition here and the firing-squad executions of the three.

  Suárez said he did not know why some men were freed while others were held. He insisted he was not complicit in the robbery of the boat owned by Geocuba, a
  government company that does geological exploration and mapping.

  The experienced sea captain said that by piloting the boat, ``I was only doing them a favor. Besides, my son was with them.''

  Although U.S. officials based in Cuba regularly visit repatriated migrants to ensure they are not being mistreated, Suarez said no American official had visited him in the two weeks since his return. He said he had not been harassed by Cuban authorities.


  American authorities last month said they agreed to repatriate the Cubans after receiving assurances that the would-be refugees aboard the boat would not be executed for the theft or the kidnapping of three Cuban security guards on the craft.

  The Cuban government promised Washington that prosecutors here would seek no more than 10 years in prison for the people accused of commandeering the craft.

  In announcing last month's repatriation, Havana called the move ``a valuable contribution by American authorities in the fight against the hijacking of planes and boats for illegal migration.''

  U.S. officials said the Cubans were deemed ineligible for amnesty because they had committed acts of violence in Cuba as well as against Coast Guard personnel who
  boarded the 36-foot boat in the Florida Straits.

  Under U.S. policy, most Cuban migrants intercepted at sea are repatriated and those who reach land are generally allowed to stay.