HAVANA -- Four Cuban soldiers and a civilian were spared the death penalty for killing a soldier and an officer in a crime spree that ended with a botched attempt to hijack a plane to the United States, a leading rights activist said Wednesday.
It was the second recent case involving killings by soldiers that didn't end in capital punishment -- and that's "something positive," said Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Sgts. Yoan Torres and Leandro Cerezo received life sentences, and Sgt. Karel de Miranda Rubio, got 30 years by a secret military tribunal. Capt. Alain Frobes received a 25-year prison term and a civilian, Ridel Leseaylle Veloz, was sentenced to 15 years, the commission said.
The soldiers killed one soldier and wounded another while escaping from their base April 29, prompting a nationwide manhunt. They commandeered a city bus four days later, headed to Havana's International Airport and attempted to hijack a plane. Their escape attempt ended in a pre-dawn shootout in which an army lieutenant colonel was killed.
Cuba's government blamed Washington for the attempted hijacking, saying American policy allowing most Cubans to stay if they reach U.S. soil encourages violent attempts to leave the island.
Sanchez said three separate sources confirmed the men were sentenced last week after three-day trial behind closed doors in August, and the commission obtained a copy of the 32-page sentencing decree.
The soldiers were between the ages of 19 and 21, and the civilian was 31. Sanchez said that under Cuban military law, only 21-year-old Torres was old enough to face the death penalty.
Sanchez's commission earlier reported that four men involved in a December prison uprising that killed two military officers and wounded an inmate outside the eastern city of Santiago had also been spared the death penalty.
In that case, a prisoner and an army recruit working as a prison guard were condemned to life behind bars and two other soldiers on guard duty got 30-year sentences.
Sanchez's commission is not recognized by the Cuban government. Its primary activity is tracking political prisoners and issuing twice-yearly reports that are widely used by international rights groups.
There have been no reported executions in Cuba since April 2003, when three men convicted of hijacking a Havana passenger ferry with knives and a gun were sent to a firing squad. No one was hurt in the attempt, which came amid a wave of attempted boat and plane hijackings on the island. The government's swift execution of the three men led to widespread international condemnation.
Capital punishment in Cuba is always carried out by firing squad. It has been used sparingly in recent years, usually in especially heinous homicides, such as the murder of a child during a rape, or in multiple killings.