US Political Prisoners

We are unfortunately now too familiar with the extrajudicial practice of “rendition” by which the United States, acting through the CIA and third countries, has since 9/11 illegally detained, and most probably tortured or used treatment that is illegal in the US, against “suspects” around the world.


Likewise, we have become aware of the unlawful detention since 9/11 and again, probable cruel and inhumane treatment, of hundreds of misnomered “enemy combatants” not POWs at the US Naval Base illegally situated on Cuban territory in Guantanamo Bay which, thanks to a biddable Congress, continues despite international protests and the US Supreme Court finding that this is contrary to the Geneva Convention.


But these atrocities must not let us forget our political prisoners at home, and their existence should not only shame us, it should frighten us.


It happens, that when words and images become familiar they lose their bite, so a reminder here about prisoner. To be imprisoned, to lose control of your physical circumstances and to be at the mercy of whatever rules, quirks and cruelties large or small your jailers care to impose is a singular punishment indeed and only imposed by the human animal.


Amnesty International defines a political prisoner as one whose incarceration is politically motivated.


Governments usually deny that they hold political prisoners. The US government is no exception. Very often the US government has succeeded in this deception by flooding the corporate press with disinformation, pandering to the common notion “where there’s smoke…;” sometimes it has not succeeded.


A not exhaustive survey of the Internet provides the names, addresses, charges, stories, and even birthdays of some 150[1] political prisoners in the US now.  The most infamous cases of political prisoners in the US, people still imprisoned, include journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, the MOVE family Africa –at least nine of whom are still in prison-, and Leonard Peltier. They have been locked away for thirty years.


The intelligence services of our government, and some administrations –the present one springs to mind- are clever not creative, but they do learn. The pattern used in the 70s with the prisoners above included heavy media propaganda against them using sweeping calumnies, followed by false accusations of a crime guaranteed to excite repugnance and the press, with a circumstantial connection between the political victim and the crime to lead credence again to the “where there’s smoke…” card that the government plays so well.


The victims named above, as do most political prisoners, have a number of shared storylines. They were effective in their protests against injustice in the system and they were in some way unlike the mainstream, ethnically, racially and/or in lifestyle. Their thin façade of legal process, done in the hope of deflecting national and international outcries of human rights violations, included sham criminal charges (often of murder), contrived and/or withheld evidence, and unfair trials, usually in a courtroom or venue “friendly” to the prosecution.

What the government and/or intelligence services have learned in the past thirty years is that a media war can backfire.  If something is “news”, there will always be some journalists and some part of the public who will want to dig to the bottom of the story and perhaps unearth the truth. This is not desirable.


The administration is forced to allow discussion –not freedom for the prisoners yet, but freedom of the press- of prisoners whose stories are already out there, which is embarrassing. The present tactic is to gag the press and if questioned, deny and/or refuse to discuss the issue at all. Ergo, more recent political prisoners do not enjoy access to the “free press” and must rely on the Internet to demonstrate the intrigues used against them and get their stories told.


Like the ill-treated partner of a cheating spouse, the majority of the American public would, deep down, prefer not to know and, for those who want the truth, there is the constant need to burrow for evidence while being stonewalled, ridiculed and told they are misinformed. It takes a great deal of confidence to persist under such circumstances.

Of the 150 or more people known now to be imprisoned in the US for political, not criminal reasons -despite the charges- the case of the Cuban Five [2] serves as a paradigm of our government´s present machinations to put away political liabilities.


What makes them a paradigm?


Political irritants. The Five had infiltrated Miami anti-Cuban terrorist groups with strong ties to high US government officials. Discovering plans that could endanger US, as well as Cuban lives, their information was passed to the FBI that initially began an investigation of the groups. This investigation was halted in Miami and the wrongdoers were not arrested; however, the Cubans were. Comandos F4, CANF, and Brothers to the Rescue operate with complete impunity from within the United States to make terrorist attacks on Cuba—with the knowledge and support of the FBI and CIA.


Not Mainstream. They are Cuban, therefore Latino and, even better, three were born outside the United States (Antonio and Rene were born in the US).


Shocking and trumped-up charges. The Five were accused of the scary charges of conspiracy to commit espionage and endangering US national security, and, incredibly, conspiracy to commit murder.

 What they were actually doing was monitoring powerful anti-Cuban groups based in Florida with an admitted and long history of murders, bombings and other terrorist acts against Cubans in Cuba, foreign countries, and on US soil. They did not spy on the US, possess weapons, or in any way threaten US citizens, on the contrary, what they were doing protected people in the US. [3]


The murder charge stemmed from a loosey goosey and unproven allegation that Gerardo “could have” supplied information to the Cuban government that Brothers to the Rescue planes intended to again fly over Havana in 1996. [The Cuban government shot down the planes in question, thus preventing a 9/11 in Havana, for which they had practiced].


Hostile Venue. The trial was held in Miami and, given the coercion and threats that exist in Miami against anyone remotely pro-Cuban, it would not take a rocket scientist to realize the Five could not get a fair trial there. The defense’ repeated requests for a change of venue were denied. Appellate Court Judge Birch later wrote this case record represents a “perfect storm” of prejudice.


“The prosecution very skillfully represented the small extremist rightwing sector of the Cuban community… even embracing and kissing these individuals right in the courtroom, in full view of everyone here.” (Ramon)


Prejudiced Jury and/or Jury Tampering. While the rest of the media in the US were astonishingly quiet about what should have been front-page news of a Cuban “spy” network, it was daily and vituperatively covered in The Miami Herald and other Miami papers (we now know of course that, as Cuba has claimed for years, these “journalists” were in the pay of the US government).


Not relying only on the power of propaganda to influence the jury, photos of jurors’ license plates were displayed in the news – should someone take exception to their decision and want to find them later.

Surprisingly, after six months of a complex trial, with dozens of testimonies and extensive evidence, the jury needed only a few hours, without asking a single question or voicing a doubt, to reach a unanimous verdict.


The press statement by the jury foreman reveals they were more influenced by prejudices and the deceptive words in the prosecution’s closing argument than the arguments they heard over the course of half a year.


Coercion of Witnesses for Perjured Testimony Pressure was brought to bear on the detainees and their families to plead guilty and testify as told. Moral fortitude in such circumstances is very individual and a few acquiesced. The Five did not.


The prosecutors used both subtle and blatant threats. They resorted to blackmailing witnesses under the threat of legally incriminating them if they did not plead the Fifth Amendment. They even went so far as to try to blackmail four-star General Charles Wilhelm, former chief of the Southern Command, to stop him from testifying for the defense.


Suppression of Evidence The defendants and their lawyers were prohibited from viewing “evidence” against them for “reasons of national security.”


Government used a highly controversial process called CIPA (Classified Information Procedure Act) to protect classified “sources and methods” from public disclosure. Sometimes, but not in this case, there is an attempt to balance the need to protect classified information with the accused´s right to due process.


Another process, FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that has recently been in the news, was also used in this case The code defines “foreign intelligence information” to mean information necessary to protect the United States against actual or potential grave attack, sabotage or international terrorism. None of which was relevant against the Five, although it could have been used in their favor.

Ninety percent of the validation of the Five’s reasons for infiltrating the Miami groups, the more than 40 years of countless terrorist activities against Cuba, and against anyone who advocates a normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, by these very anti-Cuba terrorist organizations based in Miami, were not allowed. More than 3,000 Cubans have died as a result of these terrorists’ attacks


Insufficient Evidence for Conviction on Charges. The prosecution based its whole propaganda show on the charge of conspiring to shoot down the planes.


The Court did not allow proof that Cuba and the US knew about these flights in advance, or that the US had warned Brothers to the Rescue not to make them.


After two years of close surveillance, and tapes of most of their conversations, as well as confiscation of a large quantity of materials, the prosecutors could not present a single piece of evidence at the trial to demonstrate that Gerardo Hernandez had conspired to shoot down those planes or contributed in any way to that act. The prosecution based their entire case on pure speculation, on small excerpts of documents, manipulated and taken out of context, and above all on the emotional and sensitive nature of this accusation, due to the loss of human lives.


There was no shred of evidence that the Five had attempted to obtain military secrets, infiltrate government organizations, or in any way endanger national security.

The Five did admit to being “unregistered agents of a foreign government”.


Unusually Harsh Sentences When discovered in the US, unregistered agents of a foreign government are routinely deported.

Gerardo Hernandez received two consecutive Life Sentences
Antonio Guerrero received a Life Sentence
Ramon Labañino received a Life Sentence
Fernando Gonzalez was sentenced to 19 Years
Rene Gonzalez was sentenced to 15 Years


In addition, in blatant pandering to the Miami criminal groups, the Miami Court imposed specific measures on the Five to ensure that, never again, once their prison terms were served, could they attempt anything to the detriment of the criminals.


Judiciary Shenanigans On August 9, 2005, after seven years of unjust imprisonment, the Cuban Five won an unprecedented victory on appeal. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of the Cuban Five and ordered a new trial outside of Miami.


However, in an unusual judiciary move, the 11th Circuit Court agreed to hear the US prosecutors’ appeal. A year later, the en banc Court reversed the 2005 Appellate opinion and the Cuban Five remain imprisoned.


Cruel and Unusual Punishment While the Five differed from many political prisoners in that they were not beaten, to the author’s knowledge, they have been subjected to out of the ordinary and illegal cruelties.


They were kept in solitary confinement for 17 months from the time of their arrest.


They have been put in solitary again periodically, most notably in the time preceding their appeal, although they were model prisoners.


Lawyer-client visits were severely curtailed and at times stopped altogether, preceding their appeal.


Family visits have been limited, and for two, prohibited. Rene Gonzalez has not seen his youngest daughter since she was an infant as the US will not give his wife, Olga Salanueva, a visa to visit him. The child, Ivette, is a US citizen. Adriana Perez, wife of Gerardo Hernandez, has also been denied a visa to visit her husband in his eight years of incarceration.


Media Distortions. In a reversal of media disinformation in the cases of Mumia, MOVE, Leonard Peltier, and some others, the US media has been silent in a case that should have been outstanding news from the initial charges and throughout one of the most prolonged legal proceedings in history.


In the words of US historian Howard Zinn: “You know, the five Cubans that have been imprisoned in the United States is something that is secret from the people of the United States.”


Ignacio Ramonet of Le Monde Diplomatique, describes the same situation in the case of the Five in Europe: “The European media is applying a generalized boycott; neither the papers, radio or television are covering this story. We are facing a deed that is totally censored.”

The Five are indeed a paradigm for political prisoner. They should never have been arrested. They were fighting terrorism. Moreover, the scariest part of all is that very few people in the United States know it.


Are you a political irritant?  If you were arrested tomorrow, would we know it?

[1] Prison Activist Resource Center, (prisoner of conscience updates), ,


[2] Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labañino, Fernando Gonzalez, Rene Gonzalez.


[3]Terrorist acts within the US: 1974- Exile leader José Elías de la Torriente is murdered in Coral Gables for the failure of an invasion he was to lead to Cuba. 1975- Luciano Nieves is murdered after defending peaceful coexistence with Cuba. 1976- Emilio Milán, the news director at WQBA-AM, has his legs blown off by a car bomb after publicly condemning the violence perpetrated by the exile community. 1981- A bomb explodes in the Mexican consulate on Brickell Ave., in protest over Mexico‘s relations with Cuba. 1996- A bomb explodes in the Little Havana restaurant Centro Vasco, to protest a scheduled concert by Cuban singer Rosita Fornés. 2000- On April 11, outside the home of Elián González’ relatives in Miami, radio journalist Scott Piasant de Obregón holds up a T-shirt reading “Send the boy home, it’s a father’s right,” and is physically attacked before the police arrive. These things did not happen in Cuba. They happened here in the United States.


Leave a comment