Government agrees to return boat to hunger striker

Monday, May 24, 1999 10:54
Herald Staff Writer

Following a day of ``intense negotiations,'' the U.S. government agreed Monday to return a boat seized last year from the Democracy Movement to group leader Ramon Saul Sanchez, who ended his 20-day hunger strike.

The agreement, reached late Monday between the U.S. attorney's office and the Democracy Movement's leaders, will have to be approved by a district court today in order to go into effect.

Outlined in two pages, the agreement only requires that Sanchez not sell or destroy the boat, or take it out of the southern Florida jurisdiction of the local U.S. District Court.

Flanked by dozens of supporters, Sanchez late Monday called the agreement ``an amicable and acceptable solution.''

``It is a balanced solution to the problem,'' said Sanchez, whose 20-day water-only hunger strike was meant to secure the freedom of the Human Rights fishing boat. ``We are satisfied and we realize the U.S. government had its own interests to protect, even if we don't agree with them.''

Sanchez added that the boat, now in a Key West dry-dock, will be brought to Miami in a caravan that will end at noon Saturday at Jose Marti Park in Little Havana.

U.S. attorney's spokeswoman Alicia Valle would not comment on the agreement Monday, saying it still must be approved by a district court.

Andy Kayton, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, who represented Sanchez, praised the agreement.

``It is an important act of faith by the U.S. government, far more consistent with the democratic principles of this country than the exercise of authority it previously used,'' Kayton said.

Though Sanchez will have custody of the boat, the issue of its seizure is far from over.

Both sides plan to square off in court over the validity of that seizure and the presidential order that requires boats leaving most Florida ports bound for Cuban waters to obtain a permit beforehand, Kayton said.

The U.S. Coast Guard seized the 35-foot Human Rights just south of Key West on Dec. 10 on the grounds its crew was headed to Cuba without seeking permission. Seven members of the Democracy Movement said they had planned to sail to the island to distribute copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when they were intercepted.

The group is known for organizing protest flotillas in the Straits of Florida against the Cuban government.

For the better part of the day Monday, both sides were engaged in ``serious negotiations'' over the return of the vessel. As a sign of goodwill, Sanchez said at a noon news conference he was calling for a halt to all planned acts of civil disobedience until noon today.

In pushing for the release of the boat, the group had called on its members and sympathizers across Miami-Dade to slow traffic, lie in the streets, and flood post offices and the phone lines at federal agencies and the White House on Monday. Plans also called for stopping traffic from entering or leaving the Port of Miami-Dade today.

By the time Sanchez called for the moratorium Monday, only a handful of incidents had been reported.

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