Exile boaters could be charged

Monday, Jul 16, 2001 04:33

Three spent hour in Cuban waters

 The Miami Herald 
July 16, 2001


 Members of the Democracy Movement may learn as early as today whether the U.S. attorney's office in Miami will file criminal charges against them for illegally sailing into Cuban waters to stage a weekend memorial, the group's leader said Sunday.

 ``They told us we would be notified soon if criminal proceedings will be initiated against us,'' said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, 46, no stranger to conflicts with the U.S. 
 government over access to Cuban waters. His anti-Castro group is well-known for protest flotillas and acts of civil disobedience.

 Sánchez is challenging federal rules, or decrees, in place since 1998 that say that no vessel departing from any Florida ports, except in the Panhandle, can enter Cuban territorial waters without a permit.

 Saturday morning, Sanchez, the group's founder, and members Alberto Pérez, 58, and Pablo Rodríguez, 48, broke away from a five-boat flotilla on their 23-foot, 
 twin-engine boat dubbed ``My Right to Return Home'' and rushed into Cuban waters, ignoring bullhorn warnings from a U.S. Coast Guard cutter to stop.

 Their mission: To drop wreaths and say prayers at the site where 41 Cubans drowned after their tugboat was allegedly sunk by a Cuban gunboat on July 13, 1994.

 Sánchez's latest protest comes at a time when the White House is expected to announce a series of get-tough measures on Cuba.

 But hours before the flotilla departed on Friday, Sánchez said he learned that Bush would not address the proclamation that bars entry into Cuban waters to organizations such as his.

 ``Once we saw nothing would change, we decided to stage our nonviolent protest,'' said Sánchez, who feels Cuban waters should be open to exiles.

 Now, the three could face 10 years in prison, fines of up to $10,000, seizure and possible forfeiture of their vessel, if convicted.

 Aloyma Sanchez, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office, said her office had no comment on whether the exiles will be criminally charged, or what will happen to their seized vessel.

 The Coast Guard first detained the men at sea, towing their boat. They were released once in Key West, on orders from the U.S. attorney's office.

 Attorney Joseph Geller, who in the past has represented the Democracy Movement in its efforts to reclaim other confiscated vessels, said he's not sure how the 
 government will react to the latest incident.

 ``We just don't know what their intentions are right now,'' Geller said of the possibility of criminal charges. ``It's premature to reach the conclusion that because the men were released, they won't be charged. We might find out Monday what will happen next.''

 A legal defense team will be put together, if necessary, Sánchez said.

 Another question mark is the fate of the boat the men used to cross beyond the 12-mile limit into Cuban territorial waters. The boat was recently donated to the 
 Democracy Movement, Sánchez said. He would not identify the donor. The Coast Guard did not release ownership information on Sunday.

 ``We're waiting to hear from the U.S. attorney's office what they want us to do with the boat,'' said Coast Guard spokesman Robert Suddarth. Plans for U.S. Customs to take custody of the boat are on hold.

 The Coast Guard said it was enforcing the federal rules that any captain of a small private, noncommercial vessel that enters Cuban waters without permission is in 
 violation of the South Florida Security Zone proclamation issued by former President Bill Clinton in 1998. That proclamation came in the wake of the shoot-down two years earlier of two Brothers to the Rescue planes. Four fliers were killed in that incident.

 Sánchez said the decree, which has not been challenged in court, is being selectively enforced.

 ``The Coast Guard is enforcing this presidential decree against us only,'' Sánchez said.

 Fellow movement member Rodríguez said he's ready to defend himself.

 ``I would do it again,'' he said of Saturday's hour-long sneak into Cuban waters. ``I know it's a law, but I don't think it's a good law.''

 It's not the first time Sanchez and his group have tangled with the government over an attempted incursion.

 On Dec. 10, 1998, the U.S. Coast Guard seized the group's 35-foot boat, Human Rights, just south of Key West because its crew was headed to Cuba without seeking permission.

                                    © 2001

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