U.S. News

Judge reduces sentences of two Cuban spies

MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. judge Tuesday reduced the prison terms of two convicted Cuban spies in the latest twist of a high-profile espionage case that has strained already hostile ties between Havana and Washington.

(L-R) Adriana Perez (wife of Gerardo Hernandez), Elizabeth Palmeiro (wife of Ramon Labanino), Olga Salanueva (wife of Rene Gonzalez) and Irma Sehwerert (mother of Rene Gonzalez) hold a news conference at the International Press Center in Havana March 12, 2007. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard cut the sentence of Ramon Labanino, also known as Luis Medina, from a life term to 30 years, an assistant to the judge told Reuters.

In a separate later ruling, Lenard reduced the sentence of a second convicted spy, Fernando Gonzalez, also known as Ruben Campa, from 19 years to 17 years and nine months.

Cuba said the sentence reductions did not go far enough.

U.S. prosecutors said they were part of a Cuban espionage ring that had spied on the Cuban exile community in Florida and sought to penetrate U.S. military facilities there.

The original sentences imposed by Lenard against Labanino and Gonzalez were thrown out as excessively harsh last year by a U.S. appeals court, which argued the Cuban agents had not succeeded in actually sending back top secret information, despite their conspiracy to do so.

Labanino and Gonzalez were arrested in 1998 along with three other Cuban agents. Prosecutors said they formed the so-called “Wasp Network” sent to the United States to infiltrate exile groups opposed to Cuba’s communist government, then led by Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro, now 83, handed over the Cuban presidency last year to his younger brother, Raul Castro, 78. U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants to try to improve U.S.-Cuban ties after a half century of hostility.

The case of the five spies has long been a point of contention between the United States and Cuba, which demands their release, hails them as heroes and says they were trying to prevent “terrorist” attacks by exile extremists.

In Havana, the president of Cuba’s National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, said the decision to reduce the sentences did not go far enough and criticized the U.S. justice system.

“Any sentence imposed on these comrades is unjust, but that doesn’t mean that the reduction of the sentences is insignificant,” Alarcon told a Cuban television talk show.

“This is an important day, a victorious day, but it isn’t cause for satisfaction, nowhere near. This must serve as an additional argument, not only to continue the fight but to intensify it,” said Alarcon, Cuba’s long-time pointman on relations with Washington.

In October, one of the five, Antonio Guerrero, had his sentence reduced from life to about 22 years.

The five Cuban espionage agents were convicted in a Miami court in 2001 of 26 counts of spying and received sentences ranging from 15 years to life in prison.

U.S. prosecutors had linked the activities of the Cuban spy ring to the 1996 shooting down by Cuban fighter jets of two planes belonging to an exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, which flew near Cuba. Four men in the planes were killed.

Cuba has staged national and international campaigns calling for the release of the five, arguing they did not receive a fair trial in Miami, center of the exile community that fled after Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution.

Reporting by Tom Brown and Pascal Fletcher in Miami and Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana; Editing by Jim Loney