March 26, 1999
By Anita Snow
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
HAVANA - All rose solemnly from the blue plastic and aluminum lawn chairs when five black-robed judges entered the auditorium at a historic Spanish fortress.
Officially, the defendant was a Salvadoran accused of planting bombs at Havana hotels, but it was really the Miami-based Cuban exile community and the U.S. government on trial.
During three trials over the past three weeks, Fidel Castro's communist government briefly opened up its judicial process to send a message: Anyone who attacks the regime - whether with words or packages of plastic explosives - will be dealt with harshly.
Few Cubans and even fewer foreigners have been inside a Cuban courtroom. Trials tend to be closed and proceedings are rarely reported by the government-controlled media.
So Cubans watched with fascination when government TV broadcast excerpts from the trial of four leading Cuban dissidents and from the trials of two Salvadoran men accused of terrorism aimed at scaring away foreign tourists.
In the Salvadoran cases, state security agents who infiltrated Miami-based exile organizations faced the five judges seated on elaborately carved wooden chairs and told of being recruited to smuggle explosives into Cuba for attacks on hotels and historic monuments.
While floor fans whirred in the background, Interior Ministry investigators in olive green uniforms screened videotaped interviews of Cuban prisoners who also told of being offered thousands of dollars by exile organizations to sneak in explosives.
The four Cuban dissidents were charged with inciting sedition. Among the acts for which they were arrested: criticizing a major Communist Party document, encouraging foreign companies not to invest in Cuba and suggesting a boycott of 1997 elections.
``They encouraged people not to vote!'' proclaimed prosecutor Edelmira Perez, noting that voting is obligatory in Cuba.
The dissidents received prison sentences ranging from 3 1-2 to 5 years. The United States, Canada and the European Union criticized the sentences for acts that in their countries would be protected by free speech laws.
Government newspapers provided details of all three trials to make sure everyone on the island got the point.
Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, noted before the March 1 dissidents' trial that it usually doesn't report on the ``doings of such criminals.''
``This time, however, we consider it necessary and appropriate to devote some space to them, given the extent to which they illustrate, confirm, denounce and expose the United States' policy against Cuba,'' it said.
And while journalists were barred from the dissidents' trial, they were welcomed at the trials of the two Salvadorans, ensuring that opponents living outside Cuba got the message as well.
Much of what is known about Cuban justice is based on the revolutionary tribunals that sentenced hundreds to death in 1959, or the military tribunal that sent a popular general, Arnaldo Ochoa, and three other officers to the firing squad for drug trafficking in 1989.
In 1959, witnesses were called from crowds of spectators and verdicts - often death - were quickly enforced. In one case, more than 15,000 people crowded into Havana's sports arena for the trial of Jesus Sosa Blanco, a captain in dictator Fulgencio Batista's army. He was later executed.
Another look at the judicial system came in 1996 when news media were allowed to cover the trial of fugitive financier Robert Vesco for alleged economic crimes. He had the right to a lawyer, and evidence and witnesses were presented much as they are in Western trials.
Unlike the Vesco trial, the trials of the dissidents and the Salvadorans were highly political - and symbolic.
The Salvadorans were tried at the imposing Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana, where Castro's government executed hundreds of people in the early months of the revolution.
The prosecution has recommended the death penalty for both Salvadorans, too, but verdicts are pending. If sentenced to go before the firing squad, they could appeal to the Supreme Court, a process that can drag on for years.
Raul Ernesto Cruz Leon confessed to six bombings, including one that killed an Italian man. Otto Rene Rodriguez Llerena confessed to planting a bomb at a hotel, then attempting to bring explosives into Cuba for more attacks.
There have been no reported executions in Cuba since February 1992, when a Cuban exile was put to death for trying to infiltrate the island.