Cuba Celebrates Thrown-Out U.S. Convictions

Cuba (search) applauded a U.S. federal appeals court decision to throw out the convictions and sentences of five Cuban intelligence agents, saying Wednesday that it was a "happy day" on the island.

A statement on the front page of the Communist Party daily Granma called Tuesday's ruling "ethical" and urged Cubans to be patient as the men, known locally as the "Five Heroes," prepare for a new trial.

"The wait has been long ... and there's no doubt that it will continue to be so," the newspaper said. "It is not easy to overcome a wall of prejudice and blasphemy created over 45 years."

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ordered a new trial after agreeing with defense attorneys who challenged the 2001 convictions, saying that prejudice against President Fidel Castro (search) and his communist government runs high in Miami.

Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon (search) said the decision vindicated his government, which has run a high-profile campaign on the island and abroad promoting the five men as victims of anti-Cuban bias in southern Florida. He called on the U.S. government to release the men while they await a new trial.

Rene Gonzalez (search), Ramon Labanino, Gerardo Fernandez, Fernando Gonzalez and Antonio Guerrero were convicted in June 2001 of serving as unregistered agents of a foreign government. All five acknowledge being Cuban agents but said they were spying on "terrorist" exile groups opposed to Castro, not the U.S. government.

Three were also convicted of espionage conspiracy for efforts to penetrate U.S. military bases even though they received no U.S. secrets.

One, Gerardo Hernandez, was also found guilty of murder conspiracy in the deaths of four Miami-based pilots whose small, private planes were shot down Feb. 24, 1996, by a Cuban MiG in international waters off Cuba's northern coast.

Three of the men received life sentences, one was sentenced to 19 years in prison and the other got 15 years.

"We have felt indebted for their generous sacrifices, and for that reason today we hug each other and celebrate," the newspaper statement said.

Family members and the parliament speaker said they were confident the men would be acquitted in a future trial.

"I don't have the slightest doubt that any honest person analyzing this case will arrive at the same conclusion [as the appeals court]," Alarcon said.