Cuba holds public trial for 6 migrants
By Vanessa Bauzá
CAMAGUEY, Cuba · A Cuban court on Monday tried six migrants on
charges they violently overpowered two security guards and stole a government-owned
boat in a
failed attempt to reach Florida's shores.
The men were in a group of 12 who were repatriated last month under
assurances from the Cuban government they would face no more than 10 years
Prosecutors sought 10 years for Antonio Carrion Peña and Noelvis Martinez Carrion, nine years for Mijail Suarez Martinez and Angel David Velasquez Roldan, eight
years Yosvel Chavez Novo and seven years for Adel Napoles Rodriguez.
A panel of five judges who presided over the one-day trial in the Provincial
Tribunal of Camaguey have 10 days to return a verdict and decide on the
recommendations, defense attorneys said.
The defendants all testified in court and the proceedings were open
to relatives and the international media, offering a rare glimpse into
Cuba's judicial process. Open
trials are not common in Cuba, but after several months of high-profile hijackings, the government may be using the trials to prevent similar incidents.
Wearing dark-gray uniforms, the men were led into the courtroom by Interior
Ministry soldiers as their relatives sobbed in the audience. Defense attorneys
said they had
a standard five-day period to prepare their cases. They argued the charges should be reduced to "aggravated illegal exit," which carries a three- to eight-year sentence,
since the men did not steal the Gaviota 16 for profit but rather used it to reach the United States.
The state prosecutor spent more time questioning the defendants than
their lawyers did. The prosecution called eight witnesses, including crime
scene investigators, two
night guards taken hostage by the migrants, and a Cuban Border Patrol agent.
Three of the defendants shared one lawyer, while the other three had
individual attorneys representing them. Only one of the defense attorneys
called a character
witness to testify, and that witness did not attend the trial for unknown reasons. There were no other defense witnesses called.
Both the prosecutor and defense attorneys blamed the Cuban Adjustment
Act, which provides residency to Cubans who reach U.S. shores, for inciting
the men to steal
"There is a murderous law which has motivated these acts," Prosecutor Luis Palenzuela Paez said.
Carrion Peña, 42, who was identified as the group's leader, said
he undertook the risky voyage because of his critical economic situation.
He said he bought extra fuel
and food, and gave some of the other migrants tasks so the operation would go smoothly. The men showed up at the GeoCuba mapping agency, on the north central bay
of Nuevitas, at 11 p.m. on July 14 wearing black stockings over their heads and carrying knives. They surprised the three guards, seized their Czech-made machine guns
and tied them up. One guard is the brother of a defendant.
They took the guards hostage, however, the men testified they never
used them as human shields or to bargain with Cuban or U.S. officials.
They sailed through
Bahamian waters, however, and were soon intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Coast Guard officers told them to give up their boat and board their
U.S. cutter. A scuffle broke out when the migrants insisted on staying
their course. Guard officers
used pepper spray on the men, and the migrants brandished fire extinguishers.
"They sprayed gases on our eyes and hit our feet with electrified rods,"
said Carrion Peña. I threw an extinguisher at [a Coast Guard Officer]'s
head. But it went into
The men were repatriated on July 21 following a firestorm of criticism
from the Cuban American community, which blasted the Bush administration
for seeming to
negotiate with Fidel Castro's government.
On Monday, relatives had mixed reviews of the trial.
Orgelina Martinez, mother of Suarez Martinez, said she was grateful for the sentencing limits.
"Compared to serving 30 years in prison, I'm glad for nine," she said. "Everyone says these sentences come from up high. Let's see what the defense can do."
Others were disappointed in the defense.
"The defense lawyers don't talk," said Eugenia Novo, Chavez Novo's mother. "The prosecutor talks and talks and talks."
Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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