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From Rene Gonzalez’s Blog
It is 14 years today, 27th Nov, since the trial commenced. As I previously reported here, a chronicle of how events unfolded during the months in question will be posted on the blog — together with the official court transcripts.
Our odyssey commenced on the 12th Sept 1998, when, during the very early hours of that Saturday morning, 10 people were arrested by the FBI.
After the assault that constitutes a USA style arrest and preliminary interrogation in the Agency’s station, we were transferred to the Miami Federal Detention Center (FDC) and held in solitary confinement on the vacant 13th Floor.
The circus commenced the following Monday when, without having had the opportunity to wash ourselves or comb our hair, we were, dressed in the infamos standard North American criminal orange overalls, taken down right from our cells to the courtroom.
Word had spread rapidly throughout the city and a show was staged for a curious and delirious crowd of onlookers. The trophy “Castro´s Spies” were exhibited for the first time for the Miami public. The vengeful and payback atmosphere inherent in these scenes was to determine the manner in which the prosecution would act and how the wheels of the Federal justice system would keep turning until the present day.
From the earliest days it was clear, that of the ten who had been detained, only Five had decided to face down the pressure and the blackmail that the prosecutors were applying. The others opted to collude with the prosecution in exchange for remarkably light sentences. And so began our torturous journey of confrontation with a legal apparatus that had been trimmed to determine our guilt.
Slowly but surely they compiled copious amounts of documentation which are used in cases like this to disguise the essential nature of how the system functions.
Even though there was a total of 26 charges brought against us, in effect the Five of us faced three substantial charges: Three Counts of Conspiracy to Commit Espionage hung over Manuel Viramontes, Luis Medina and Antonio Guerrero. Over the five –now including Ruben Campa and Rene Gonzalez- a charge of Acting as a Foreign Agent without registering with the Attorney General added to the counts.
We were all also facing what seemed like an odd accusation: Conspiracy to commit the acts that we had been accused in the first instance of committing. In other words we were facing two charges for allegedly committing one crime: one charge for committing it and one charge for conspiring to commit it.
On the 29th Sept, on our return from a bail hearing the elevator stopped on the 12th Floor of the FDC. There, our indefinite detention in punishment cells, referred to as the Special Housing Unit and known as The Hole was officially determined. From here on the manner in which The Five would be treated took on a particular character that would endure for 17 months.
Meanwhile, legal cogs would commence to grind against the interests of the Five accused. As we were confined in one Hole, far from where we were another was being prepared in which evidence relating to our case could be interred. All of this resorting to the trick of putting indiscriminately the stamp “SECRET” to every document found in our possession. The intention and result of this was that we would only have access to a tiny portion of the evidence that allegedly incriminated us.
On the 7th May a second amended indictment brought up a new count of conspiracy to commit murder, relating to the shooting down on 24th February 1996 of two aircraft belonging to the Brothers to the Rescue Organization in which four people lost their lives. It was brought against Manuel Viramontes – now going by the real name of Gerardo Hernandez.
The Prosecution — after numerous meetings with both Cuban-American politicians and relatives of the deceased pilots — without producing any new evidence or testimony added this charge as the result of a media campaign to accuse Fidel Castro of being responsible for the shoot down. This point marks an irreversible politicization of the trial which would now revolve around this conspiracy to murder charge and enmesh the case in a tangle of anti-Fidel Miami counterrevolutionary resentment and vengeance
The uphill struggle by the Defense to have the trial removed from the villous Miami atmosphere commenced in August 1999. The lawyer representing Luis Medina William Norris, requested funds to conduct a poll about the predominant opinions in the city relating to the trial of the Five. Various motions seeking a change of the trial venue follow. The precedent on which they rest is the Pamplin vs. Mason ruling which determines the justification of a venue change where there are strong community prejudices that impede fair trial for the accused.
The Prosecution contended that Miami was a big and heterogeneous city within which the Cuban community did not hold sufficient sway to influence the fairness of the process. It was not to be very long before — in another trial, in which the Government is the defendant — the prosecution would make a 180 degree turn and site Pamplin vs Mason as a precedent to establish that anti Cuban sentiment in Miami made a fair trial impossible.
The Court ruled in favor of the Government on both counts: in ours to refuse the petition for a change of venue and in the other – Ramirez vs Ashcroft – to grant a similar petition to the government and transfer the trial to Tampa.
In the meantime, the Five of us are fighting to be taken from detention in the punishment cells which impede our ability to adequately prepare our defence. After an initial hearing before a magistrate in which our request is denied we began a process involving the prisons own administration. One after the other, our applications are “lost”. Staff openly derides our submissions. We patiently resubmit paperwork relating to each “lost” application, each ignored request for medical attention, each visit by my children that “could not be facilitated” and each unanswered petition.
With a list of these in hand we return to the Court. The magistrate advises the Prosecution that “this is a high profile case, for which it might be better to remove the defendants from The Hole so as not to complicate matters.” He gives both sides a week to reach an agreement.
Our situation has been momentarily “strengthened” and we demand that we be placed on the same unit: “for 18 months you have argued that we needed to be housed in punishment wing for our own protection which means that we should now be kept close together in the interests of our safety.”
Our audacity pays off.
Having been warned by the magistrate of the negative effects of publicity our jailers concede and in February 2000 the Five of us are placed in Section 7E. A minor victory to celebrate.
The questions relating to our petition for a change of venue remain unanswered until a second hearing is held. Our lawyers armed this time with the results of a survey conducted by Professor Gary Moran, the scope and cost of which had been approved in advance by the judge. They also have an array of press articles – it would later transpire that these were surreptitiously paid for by the Government – in which the Five are vilified since the day they were first arrested. Professor Moran mysteriously fails to appear.
The Prosecution are empty handed but in reality will not need any material to support their arguments.
“The size of the sample is not sufficient to establish community sentiment. Mr. Moran always arrives at the same conclusions. Pamplin vs Mason is not relevant because the Cuban community is a small group within a big city and consequently is not important. Press reports stating that the “spies were trained with hallucinogenics” or that they “attacked the very heart of our National Security” were harmless, healthy, impartial, balanced and immaterial.”
One after the other, the survey that that had been approved in advance by the Judge, the Pamplin vs Mason precedent, the press articles with which the city had been bombarded for almost two years and the known history of Miami with all the inherent prejudices, collapsed. On each point, the judge ruled in favor of unsupported prosecution contentions over the evidence presented by the Defense. We were later to learn that the Judge withheld payment to the expert Moran who consequently refused to appear to defend his survey.
And a little later still we were to learn even more; the honourable Judge Lenard and Professor Moran had had problems during a previous case. The Judge never advised the parties about this conflict of interest. Another flagrant violation of the law.
When, on the 27th June 2000, the judge summarily rejected all the arguments supporting the petition for a change of venue, the fortune of the Five was sealed.
At the beginning of August the prosecution proposed a deal offering us absurd sentences in return for a guilty plea on all counts. Either way, we were never at this stage going to agree to a guilty plea on any of the false accusations that the prosecution had constructed. We were not going to lie in the dock for them so that they could then use our lies as a pretext to accuse Cuba.
The deal that I was offered came with a veiled threat: remember that your wife is not a US citizen and can be subjected to a deportation process. On my birthday – the 13th of August – I told her during a visit to prepare herself for any eventuality. On the 16th Immigration arrived at her home and took her to prison to await deportation.
There were still some other skirmishes.
On the 23rd October the prosecution showed its claws regarding concerns about what the evidence might reveal and they filed a motion that certain matters should not be discussed. This had a strange name: Motion to eliminate from the trial certain themes that…, well… had to do with certain Cuban “perceptions” about activities – not to say terrorism – that could be planned in Florida……
Put bluntly, they considered it best not to touch on the subject of terrorism during the trial. That evidence relating to such terrorism was immaterial, unimportant and irrelevant. Even though it was the combating of such terrorism that motivated the accused, this inspiration should not be made known to the jury. The motion was so ridiculous that even Judge Lenard could not support it. The beans of terrorism had just spilled over the table from the plate of the prosecution.
With everything ready for the trial to commence in five days time, my wife was deported on the 22nd November. On the 27th we were brought before the court and the official transcript of the process that will appear here in my blog was commenced.
In the fulfilment of a promise to my wife I began to write my first words in a trial diary – fragments of which I will also post — which were the inspiration for this “Chronicle of an Anticipated Parody”.