BY JENNIFER BABSON
KEY WEST - As Democracy Movement leader Ramón Saúl Sánchez and two other men sped without authorization into Cuban territorial waters last July, six Cuban naval vessels appeared to be waiting for them, a U.S. Coast Guard commander said Tuesday.
One of the Cuban gunboats began advancing toward the 23-foot speedboat carrying the Cuban exiles -- prompting Coast Guard officials to consider whether they should ready to use firepower to ''defend'' the small vessel, Cmdr. Joseph Sinnett said.
Sinnett was called to testify Tuesday in the federal trial of Sánchez, Alberto Pérez, and Pablo Rodríguez, who are charged with intentionally violating Florida Security Zone rules that require boaters to obtain permission from the Coast Guard before entering Cuban waters. The men were in a boat -- My Right To Return Home -- that broke off from a five-vessel flotilla that held a ceremony on the edge of Cuban waters July 14.
Senior U.S. District Judge Norman C. Roettger is presiding over the Key West trial, which is expected to last at least through this week.
Sinnett said the Coast Guard spotted the Cuban naval vessel break off from an unusual formation of about six other Cuban government boats that
radars indicated were off the Cuban coast as My Right to Return ventured about 2 ½ to three miles into Cuban waters.
''One of those [Cuban] vessels left its position and started on an intercept course toward My Right To Return,'' Sinnett said.
As the cat-and-mouse game unfolded, the Coast Guard waited at the edge of Cuban waters, frantically trying to reach Sánchez and the others on radio, Sinnett said. For between 15 and 20 minutes, the Coast Guard was out of contact with the fiberglass boat and had difficulty even plotting it on radar, he testified.
Meanwhile, radars showed a Cuban gunboat moving to within 4 ½ to six miles of the unarmed speedboat.
Coast Guard officers again took to the radio, this time to warn the Cuban exiles that ''something was coming toward them,'' Sinnett said.
Suddenly, My Right to Return stopped -- as did the Cuban vessel that was headed straight at it, Sinnett told jurors. At that point in his testimony, Sinnett's detailed description of the near-confrontation came to a halt: Defense attorneys objected strenuously to his statements, requesting a mistrial which Roettger immediately denied.
Former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, who is representing Sánchez, said the tale was not relevant to the government's prosecution. ''Why are they now portraying this drama on the high seas?'' Coffey said. ``What they are doing is trying this case on the high seas, some event with a patrol boat which is dramatic.''
Roettger handed a victory to attorneys for Pérez and Rodríguez on Tuesday -- ruling that prosecutors could not introduce a report by an investigator who stated that Pérez said the men had planned to enter Cuban waters before they ever left the Keys.
The decision will likely focus the trial more squarely on Sánchez -- whose past words to the media regarding the Security Zone may provide ammunition to prosecutors.
Sánchez's attorneys are likely to argue that he rashly decided on the high seas to venture into Cuban waters when he noticed that a Coast Guard cutter was not blocking his path.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Benedict Kuehne called Sánchez the ''picture of an innocent man'' whose personal convictions and motherless adolescence prompted him to protest Cuban President Fidel Castro's policies.
''He's a fascinating man. He is a man whose life is dedicated to peaceful, nonviolent change of Castro's tyranny in Cuba,'' Kuehne told the 12-member jury. ''Family reunification,'' Kuehne said later, was ``something that was denied Ramón.''
Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg, who is prosecuting the case with Assistant U.S. Attorney Eileen O'Conner, contended that Sánchez and his co-defendants planned to violate Security Zone rules because they didn't approve of them.
''This is a case about three men who knowingly and willfully broke the law because they don't like the law,'' Greenberg said. ``Three men who broke the law to get attention.''
A group of Cuban exile religious leaders in Miami added their support to the three defendants Tuesday, appealing to the U.S. government to respect the right of Cubans to return unhindered to the land of their birth.
The group, which calls itself Spiritual Guides in Exile, issued the appeal to express its solidarity with the Democracia Movement activists.
The appeal is signed by 75 Catholic priests, 25 Protestant ministers, six Episcopal bishops and two Catholic bishops. It justifies the action of the three activists as ``a right given by God to all Cubans because He allowed us to be born on our island.''
The Rev. Martín Añorga, a Presbyterian minister, said ''the right of Cubans to enter their homeland's territorial waters should not be restrained if the American authorities allow others to go fishing [in Cuba] or visit'' the island.
El Nuevo Herald reporter Wilfredo Cancio Isla contributed to this report.