Cuba holds closed trial for 3 armed men arrested in '01, linked to US anti-Castro group

HAVANA (AP) — Three armed men who were intercepted by Cuban border guards in 2001 and have been awaiting trial since then on charges they planned acts of sabotage went to court behind closed-doors Friday, according to a veteran human rights activist.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said that during a roughly eight-hour hearing in the central city of Santa Clara prosecutors presented their case against the three Cuban-born exiles: Ihosvani Suris de la Torre, Santiago Padron Quintero and Maximo Pradera Valdes, also known as Maximo Robaina.

Authorities are seeking 30-year prison sentences for Padron and Pradera, and life behind bars for Suris. A judge will now rule on their guilt and determine an appropriate sentence for each — though it was not clear when that decision would come.

"The trial is ready for sentencing," Sanchez said by phone Friday night. He said the three men were transferred from a maximum-security prison in Havana to Santa Clara for their day in court.

Island border agents first intercepted the men on the northern coast of Villa Clara province, of which Santa Clara is the capital. After exchanging gunfire with Cuban authorities, the three fled to Jutia Key Island, where they were arrested April 26, 2001.

They were armed with four AK-47 assault rifles, an M-3 rifle, three Makarov pistols and night goggles, all purchased openly at stores in Miami, according to evidence Cuban prosecutors detailed on state television in the months following the arrests.

In Miami, Andres Nazario Sargen, leader of anti-Castro paramilitary group Alpha 66, said in 2001 that Suris and Robaina were active members of the group but went to Cuba independently. He said back then that Padron had been a member years ago, but had not been active lately.

The three have long featured prominently in a video shown several times a week on Cuban state television, where the voice of Suris is apparently heard, confessing that the group arrived in Cuba to commit acts of violence. That same presentation includes a bugged phone conversation between Suris and a man identified as a leader of the anti-Castro, Cuban-American community, detailing a plan to detonate an explosive inside the Tropicana, Havana's best-known cabaret.

Cuban authorities did not comment on Friday's proceedings, and rarely discuss such matters publicly.

Sanchez's commission is not recognized by Cuba's communist government, but largely allowed to operate.

Sanchez said he did not know exactly why it took eight years for the three to go to court, but that he suspected it was no coincidence that authorities held a trial a day after the U.S. State Department again included Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba has bristled at that charge, which Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez dismissed as "two-faced and hypocritical."