Cuba releases six men who tried to reach U.S. in hijacked boat

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

HAVANA -- Six of 12 men implicated in the hijacking of a government boat last month were immediately freed upon their return to Cuba, one of the men said Tuesday.

Fermin Suarez said Cuban authorities let him walk free, but his 27-year-old son was among the six still in custody in the provincial capital of Camaguey pending trial on robbery charges.

Suarez, 51, was the captain of the boat that U.S. officials intercepted in the Florida Straits.

"I was only doing them a favor. Besides, my son was with them," he said from a neighbor's telephone in the central-eastern town of Nuevitas.

U.S. officials sent the 12 men back to Cuba, along with three guards taken hostage by the would-be migrants, after intercepting them at sea as they tried to reach Florida. The Bush administration agreed to the repatriation after Havana promised those who stole the boat would serve no longer than 10 years in prison.

The agreement angered many in the Cuban exile community in the United States, who feared the men would be executed and didn't want the U.S. government negotiating with the Castro regime.

Washington is under increasing pressure from Cuban exiles to reconsider rules that allow Cubans to stay in the United States only if they reach land.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took issue with the decision of his brother's administration, citing concerns for the men based on a recent human rights crackdown on the island and the quick execution of three men who hijacked a ferry and tried to reach the United States.

Suarez said he did not know why some men were freed while others were held. He insisted he was not complicit in the robbery of the boat owned by Geocuba, a government company that does geological exploration and mapping.

Although U.S. officials based in Cuba regularly visit repatriated migrants to ensure they are not being mistreated, Suarez said no American official had visited him in the two weeks since his return. He said he had not been harassed by Cuban authorities.

The Cuban government has said it promised Washington that prosecutors here would seek no more than 10 years in prison for the people accused of commandeering the craft.

In announcing last month's repatriation, Havana called the move "a valuable contribution by American authorities in the fight against the hijacking of planes and boats for illegal migration."

U.S. officials said the Cubans were deemed ineligible for amnesty because they had committed acts of violence in Cuba as well as against Coast Guard personnel who boarded the 36-foot boat in the Florida Straits.

Under U.S. policy, most Cuban migrants intercepted at sea are repatriated and those who reach land are generally allowed to stay and apply for American residency after a year.

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