MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Tuesday reduced the prison term for a Cuban spy from a life sentence to about 22 years in a high-profile espionage case that strained already hostile ties between Havana and Washington.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard resentenced Antonio Guerrero, 50, to 21 years and 10 months imprisonment for his part in a Cuban espionage ring U.S. prosecutors said had sought to penetrate U.S. military facilities and had spied on the Cuban exile community in Florida.
The new sentence, although reduced from the life term originally imposed by Lenard but thrown out by an appeals court last year, was nevertheless slightly higher than the 20 years suggested by U.S. prosecutors in a resentencing deal reached with Guerrero. He has been in custody since 1998.
“At today’s hearing, Mr. Guerrero made no statement of contrition,” Lenard said after noting he had been convicted of “very serious offenses”.
Guerrero, who has Cuban and U.S. citizenships, and four other convicted Cuban spies also arrested in 1998 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.
The case of the five has long been a bone of contention between the United States and communist-ruled Cuba, which demands their release, hails them as heroes and says they were trying to prevent “terrorist” attacks by exile extremists.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants to try to improve U.S.-Cuban ties after a half century of hostility.
Dressed in a short-sleeved khaki prison uniform, his hair close-cropped and wearing glasses, Guerrero made no statement to the court, even when given the opportunity to do so.
Speaking before the resentencing, his attorney Leonard Weinglass called the reduced term a “reasonable solution.”
“A 20-year sentence is not a walk in the park ... We’re talking about cutting the heart out of a man’s life,” Weinglass said. He said later he was surprised that Lenard had opted to increase the 20 years suggested by government prosecutors.
Weinglass told reporters he expected his client could still be out of jail in around seven years, taking into account reductions for good behavior.
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.
A U.S. appeals court last year threw out the sentences against three of the five, including Guerrero, as excessively harsh, arguing they had not succeeded in actually sending back top secret information, despite their conspiracy to do so.
U.S. prosecutors said Guerrero infiltrated the Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Key West, but he failed to actually obtain any classified information.
The resentencing of the other two of the three has been postponed.
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.
In an article posted on Cuba’s official Cubadebate web site, Cuban commentator Arleen Rodriguez described Guerrero as a “political prisoner” and said the release of him and his four convicted colleagues by Obama would be a “worthy decision” by the new Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Explaining the resentencing deal reached with Guerrero, government attorney Caroline Heck Miller said it would help the image of the U.S. judicial system. “It quiets the whirls of contentiousness that swirl about this case,” she said.
In requesting the reduced sentence for Guerrero, his lawyer had quoted reports from prison officials citing his good behavior and his “outstanding job” teaching English to Spanish language inmates in a high-security prison in Colorado.
Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Cynthia Osterman