Miami jury convicts five Cubans in MiG attacks
MIAMI, Reuters Sunday, June 10, 2001, 12:00 am TWN
A Cuban agent was found guilty by a Miami jury on Friday of conspiracy to murder in the shooting down of two Cuban exile planes by Cuban jets in 1996, and he and four other agents were convicted of spying-related offenses.
The jury, which had deliberated since Monday in the federal trial of the five Cuban agents, found Gerardo Hernandez guilty of conspiracy to murder in the attack by MiG fighters near Cuba on Feb. 24, 1996, in which four Cuban exiles were killed.
The four fliers' planes belonged to the Miami based Brothers to the Rescue exile group.
Their deaths sparked international outrage and further chilled the long-hostile 9relations between the United States and communist Cuba.
Hernandez, the alleged ringleader of the group, faces a life sentence. The jury in the U.S. District Court for Florida's Southern District found him and two other defendants, Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino, guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, a crime that also carries a possible life sentence.
Those three and the two other defendants, Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez, who are not related, were also found guilty of working as agents for a foreign government, a charge carrying a possible prison sentence of 10 years.
The 1996 downing of the two planes was at the heart of the six-month trial of the five Cubans, accused of belonging to a spy ring called "Wasp Network" that was dismantled in 1998. Prosecutors said it aimed to infiltrate military installations and Cuban exile groups in Florida such as Brothers to the Rescue.
Hernandez was convicted of conspiracy to murder in the case after the prosecution argued he knew about plans for the planes' downing. It said he carried out a request from Havana to make sure that two Cuban agents who had infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue did not fly around Feb. 24, 1996.
The five admitted to working as agents for the government of President Fidel Castro but denied the charges against them. Their defense argued that they had sought to protect Cuba from exile groups bent on violent attacks on the Caribbean island.
Judge Joan Lenard set sentencing for Sept. 24.
Prosecutors warmly welcomed the verdict.
U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis was flanked by family members of the four dead men as he told reporters that the verdict was a "sweeping win for the United States and for these families."
"The blame lies at the feet of the Cuban government," he said, adding that the jury had reached "absolutely the right decision" in rejecting defense arguments that at times seemed to put exile groups and Cubans in south Florida on trial.