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Cuba Executes Three for Ferry Hijacking; Crackdown on Dissidents Continues

BY Admin  April 11, 2003 at 11:05 PM EDT

In a statement read on Cuban state television, the government said the men were prosecuted for “very grave acts of terrorism”, and were given several days to appeal the sentence.

Cuba’s Supreme Tribunal and the Council of State upheld the death sentences, and, according to the televised statement, “at dawn the sanctions were applied”.

The statement did not say what form of execution the Cuban government employed, but family members told human rights organizations their relatives were shot. Cuba generally uses a firing squad.

Four other hijackers were sentenced to life in prison, and another was sentenced to 30 years. Three women, whom ferry passengers described as the hijackers’ girlfriends, were given prison terms from two to five years.

The Cuban government said the ferry hijacking was “part of a sinister plan of provocations devised by the most extreme sectors in the U.S government and their allies, the terrorist Miami Mafia (anti-Castro exiles), with the only aim of creating conditions and pretexts to attack our country.”

None of the ferry’s 50 passengers was harmed when the men hijacked it in Havana Bay on April 2. The men, reportedly armed with a pistol and knives, ordered the captain to sail to the United States, but the ferry ran out of fuel on the way, and was towed back to Cuba. Upon the ferry’s return, the group was captured and the hostages released.

Seven hijackings have occurred over the past seven months, including two airliners and a ferry since mid-March, the Cuban government says. In the first four incidents, Cubans who stole small planes were permitted to remain in the U.S. after gaining Florida shores.

Friday?s executions come as Fidel Castro’s government cracks down on dissidents they accuse of receiving funding from the U.S. government and collaborating with American diplomats to undermine the Cuban socialist system.

The crackdown began March 18, when Cuban officials rounded up 75 dissidents and put them on trial. None of the trials lasted longer than one day, and all resulted in prison sentences ranging from six to 28 years. Cuban dissidents and American officials both deny the charges.

All the sentenced dissidents –including independent journalists, pro-democracy activists and opposition party leaders — were prosecuted on state security charges. Their trials were closed to foreign diplomats and international reporters.

Human rights groups and governments across the globe have criticized the crackdown.

“There has never been anything similar to this in the history of Cuba,” said Elizardo Sanchez, of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an organization that has monitored the arrests and trials.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned the “despicable repression”, asking President Fidel Castro to release the imprisoned dissidents.

In a written statement Thursday, Powell said, “Nearly 80 representatives of a growing and truly independent civil society have been arrested, convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in summary, secret trials. Their only crime was seeking basic human rights and freedoms.”

“We call on Castro to end this despicable repression and free these prisoners of conscience,” he said. “The United States and the international community will be unrelenting in our insistence that Cubans who seek peaceful change be permitted to do so.”

Secretary Powell also said the United States would ask the Human Rights Commission in Geneva to condemn Castro?s socialist government, calling the trials “the most significant act of political repression in decades”.

The Cuban government has said the trials are necessary to protect their communist system from U.S. hostility. Castro’s administration is upset over the way the U.S. has handled hijackers; while most passengers of hijacked vessels were returned to Cuba, some remained in the U.S. Cuba believes some of those who stayed are among the hijacking accomplices.

Cuba disagrees with Washington’s “wet feet dry feet” policy of granting residency to Cuban residents who flee Cuba and gain U.S. shores. Migrants intercepted off the shore are immediately handed over to Cuban authorities, while Cubans who reach U.S. soil undetected can seek a work permit and begin the naturalization process.