by Patricia Grogg
(IPS) HAVANA --
applied the death penalty April 11 for the first time in more than two years, executing three men who hijacked a ferry the previous week to try to reach the United States. The move will further complicate the situation for Havana in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, currently meeting in Geneva.
The commission is slated to debate Wednesday a motion on Cuba's human rights record that was sponsored by Costa Rica, Peru and Uruguay. The wording of the resolution, termed "mild" in diplomatic circles, could be toughened in response to Friday's executions and the stiff prison terms handed down in trials of 75 dissidents over the past week.
Lorenzo Enrique Copello Castillo, Barbaro Leodan Sevilla García and Jorge Luis Martínez Isaac were executed by firing squad at dawn after an "extremely summary trial provided for by articles 479 and 480 of the penal code," said an official statement.
"This is a setback for the position in favor of halting executions by firing squad, and will undoubtedly draw protests from the international community," opposition leader Elizardo Sanchez told IPS.
Sanchez, an activist with the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, one of the illegal dissident groups that until the latest crackdown on internal opposition had been largely tolerated by Cuba's socialist regime, described the executions as "deplorable."
The dissident pointed out that capital punishment had not been applied in this Caribbean island nation since 2000, even though it is a sentencing option for more than 100 criminal offenses under Cuban law.
Several young people who IPS consulted at random criticized the decision to execute the three men, and the swift manner in which the whole process was carried out. "I believe they had to be punished, but 20 years in jail would have been enough," said a 20-year-old student.
But a 55-year-old man, who only identified himself as Manuel, said the strict punishment could be explained by the fact that "the Americans are just waiting for a justification to attack Cuba."
According to the official communique, the men who were executed were "the ringleaders, the most active and brutal of the hijackers" who commandeered a commuter ferry, carrying at least 30 passengers -- including two French tourists -- in Havana Bay on Apr. 2 and ordered the crew to head to Florida.
The Popular Court of the City of Havana sentenced Maikel Delgado Aramburo, Yoanny Thomas Gonzalez, Harold Alcala Aramburo and Ramón Henry Grillo to life in prison, while Wilmer Ledea Perez received a 30-year term.
Three women -- Ana Rosa Ledea Ríos, Yolanda Pando Rizo and Dania Rojas Gongora -- were sentenced, respectively, to five, three and two years in prison for their roles in the crime.
The defendants were tried under law 93 against acts of terrorism, which was enacted on Dec. 24, 2001.
When the ferry ran out of fuel on the way to the United States, the hijackers threatened to kill hostages if they were not resupplied. They had the ship under their control until the afternoon of Apr. 3, when the police boarded the boat and overpowered the hijackers.
The communique stated that the defendants were put at the disposal of the courts two days later, and were tried "with full respect for their basic guarantees and rights."
The trial ended April 8, and the men who were sentenced to death immediately appealed to the Supreme Popular Court, Cuba's highest judicial body, which swiftly held a trial and upheld the sentences.
As Cuba's legislation stipulates, the sentences were also studied by the Council of State, which ratified them after spending "hours" reviewing the case, according to the official statement.
The Council of State, headed by President Fidel Castro, is the highest representative of the Cuban state.
The Council based its decision on "the gravity and potential dangers the incident implied, not only for the lives of innocent people, but also for the security of the country," said authorities.
In separate incidents on Mar. 19 and 31, airplanes flying domestic routes were hijacked and taken to the United States.
On Thursday, the police aborted another apparent hijacking attempt when it captured an armed group that had wrested an AK-M rifle from a soldier standing guard outside armed forces installations.
Local authorities maintain that the hijackings were part of "a sinister plan of provocations" hatched in the United States "with the sole purpose of creating conditions and pretexts to attack" Cuba, which "will be defended at any price necessary."
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said Wednesday that in the past seven months, seven hijackings of airplanes had occurred, an attempt to use "illegal emigration as a tool to destabilize" the country.
"We believe there is a conscious plan whose final goal is to ruin the migration accords that have been functioning between the two countries (Cuba and the United States) for a decade," he added.
The agreements were signed in 1994 and 1995, with the declared intention of guaranteeing legal, orderly and safe emigration. But thousands of people continue to defect, obtaining legal residency in the United States one year after they set foot on U.S. soil, under that country's Cuban Adjustment Act of 1965.
The government of Fidel Castro argues that the Cuban Adjustment Act encourages people to set out on the dangerous journey across the Florida Strait on precarious watercraft.
The head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, James Cason, made it clear to the Cuban population of 11.2 million that hijackers would receive severe sentences in the United States as well.
"Any individual of any nationality, including Cubans, who hijacks an aircraft or boat to head to the United States will be prosecuted with the full force of the U.S. legal system," said Cason in a message distributed to the Cuban press, which is a state monopoly.
In February 1999, a reform of Cuba's penal code added criminal offenses like aggravated drug trafficking, armed robbery, and corruption of minors to the list of crimes punishable by death.
But in mid-November 2000, Castro publicly stated that a group of legal experts was studying alternatives to capital punishment.
"We have other ideas that will allow us one day, by our own decision, to abolish capital punishment," the president said at that time.
In December 2000, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for a worldwide moratorium on executions.
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