Miami jury finds Cubans guilty in 1996 shootdown

 - May 21, 2008, 4:21 AM

Last month a Miami jury found Gernando Hernandez, a Cuban agent, guilty of conspiracy to murder in the 1996 shootdown of two unarmed, civilian airplanes flown by Cuban exiles. Hernandez and four others were also found guilty of separate offenses related to spying.

The incident involving two Cessna 337s flown by Brothers to the Rescue occurred in February 1996. Volunteer members of the exile group had been operating outside Cuban national waters, searching for rafters seeking to escape Cuba, when they were intercepted by Cuban MiGs. Killed when the airplanes were shot down were pilots Carlos Costa and Mario de la Pena and observers Armando Alejandre and Pablo Morales.

Hernandez, the alleged ringleader of the group of Cuban agents, faces a life sentence. The U.S. District Court jury also found him, Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, a crime that also carries a possible life sentence. Two others, Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez (unrelated), were found guilty of working as agents of a foreign government, which can carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.

As a result of the convictions, the Cuban-American Nation Foundation has approached President Bush, asking that a federal grand jury be convened for the purpose of indicting Cuban president Fidel Castro in the same matter. The foundation, apparently in favor with the Bush Administration, admits that such a move is unlikely, but its executive vice president, Dennis Hays, said it would be “a simple matter of justice.”

Jose Basulto, president of Brothers to the Rescue and pilot of a third 337 that escaped the shootdown, also sent a letter to President Bush reinforcing the foundation’s request.

“Although there is sufficient documented evidence, including two interviews with Fidel Castro, atttesting to the fact that he ordered the shootdown, the previous administration refused to take legal steps necessary to indict [him] for murder and to bring justice to the families of the victims,” said Basulto.

In February the U.S. Treasury Department freed $96.7 million in Cuban funds, making them available to the families of three of the four persons who died in the incident. The move capped a protracted wrongful-death lawsuit against the Cuban government. The effort had been thwarted by then-President Bill Clinton, whose attorney general argued for three years that such judgments interfered with U.S. foreign policy. It was only on the day before he left office that Clinton signed an executive order allowing the families access to the funds, which had been held in the U.S. since Castro became president of Cuba more than 40 years ago.

The family of the fourth member of Brothers to the Rescue who died in the shootdown was not party to the lawsuit.