U.S. court upholds conviction of Cuban spies

MIAMI, June 4 (Reuters) - A U.S. court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of five Cubans serving long prison sentences for spying and conspiracy to commit murder but opened the door to new and possibly lighter sentences for three of the men.

FBI agents arrested the five in 1998 and they were convicted in 2001 of 26 counts of spying on the Cuban exile community in Miami on behalf of Fidel Castro's government.

Lawyers for the men, in an August 2007 filing with the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, said they deserved a new trial because the prosecution made statements in closing arguments that violated court rules and because the sentences were harsher than the crimes deserved.

The appeals court rejected arguments that the convictions should be overturned but said the federal court in Miami may have erred when it imposed the sentences against three of the men in 2001.

The so-called "Cuban Five" are celebrated by many in Cuba as national heroes who were spying on armed exile groups in Miami to prevent attacks on their country and are victims of Washington's campaign against the communist-run island.

To hard-line, anti-Castro members of the Cuban exile community the five agents were justly convicted, however, and Havana's support for them is seen as an example of an anti-U.S. agenda in Cuba dating back to Castro's 1959 revolution.

In Wednesday's ruling, the appellate court affirmed a sentence of two life terms for Gerardo Hernandez, who was indicted for conspiracy to commit murder based on charges he passed information to Havana that led to the 1996 downing by a Cuban MiG fighter jet of two small planes operated by a Miami-based exile group that were flying near Cuba. Four people were killed.

The court also affirmed the 15-year sentence of Rene Gonzalez, who was convicted of acting as an agent for a foreign government and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

The sentences of the three other men, two of whom were serving life terms, were vacated and remanded for resentencing proceedings in district court. (Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Anthony Boadle)