MIAMI – The leader of a Cuban spy ring was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday for trying to infiltrate U.S. military bases and betraying the lives of four Cuban-Americans whose private planes were shot down by the Castro government in 1996.
Gerardo Hernandez, 36, received the maximum sentence after a 20-minute speech in which he denounced his federal trial as a "propaganda show" and blamed his prosecution on the political clout of Miami's Cuban exile community.
Hernandez was one of five men convicted June 8 of operating as unregistered foreign agents and conspiring to do so.
"This was a crime against America," prosecutor Caroline Miller said. "The threat was to the country at large and to this community."
Hernandez was the only one charged and convicted of murder conspiracy in the death of four Brothers to the Rescue members whose planes were shot down Feb. 24, 1996, by Cuban jet fighters in international airspace. The exile group patrols the sea between Florida and Cuba, looking for refugees.
"Every night and every day, I have been praying for justice," said Eva Barba, mother of Pablo Morales, one of the four pilots.
Prosecutors accused Hernandez of knowing about the plot to shoot down the planes because he warned two agents who infiltrated the group not to fly during a four-day period that included the day of the attack.
Hernandez denied he played a role in the attack or plotted espionage against the United States.
Relatives of the spies called them patriots, and the Cuban government insisted in a radio report Monday that the men were protecting their country from terrorism by Cuban-Americans.
Hernandez and two others also were convicted of espionage conspiracy for efforts to penetrate U.S. military bases, though the agents never obtained classified information. Those two, Ramon Labanino and Antonio Guerrero, also could face life in prison. A sentencing hearing for Labanino began Wednesday afternoon and was expected to continue Thursday.
Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez, who are not related, face up to 15 years for failing to register as foreign agents and conspiracy. All five men have said they plan to appeal.
The prosecution's case was based largely on 2,000 pages of decrypted communications peppered with communist jargon seized when the agents were indicted in 1998 as part of the 14-member Wasp Network.
Five others pleaded guilty in exchange for their cooperation and reduced sentences, and four are fugitives believed to be in Cuba.