The Miami Herald
September 6, 2001
Charge tied to entry into Cuban waters
BY SARA OLKON AND JAY WEAVER
The U.S. attorney's office Wednesday indicted Cuban exile activist Ramón Saúl Sánchez and two other men on conspiracy charges -- the first time anyone has been
criminally charged by the federal government for illegally entering Cuban waters.
The trio allegedly ignored a Coast Guard warning to return to international waters during a flotilla protest on July 14, violating a 1996 presidential decree primarily aimed at deterring people from causing a confrontation with the Cuban government.
Sánchez is the leader of the Democracy Movement, which several times has launched anti-Castro protests and memorial services at sea. The indictment comes almost 13 months after he signed a consent decree acknowledging that the presidential proclamation prohibiting entry into Cuban waters is ``lawful, valid and constitutional.''
He said he signed the agreement so the federal government would return his boat the Human Rights, which had been seized by the Coast Guard after a December 1998 flotilla that allegedly infringed on Cuban waters.
``We thought it was only for the Human Rights and didn't apply to other vessels,'' Sánchez said Wednesday.
``I feel sad, but at the same time, I feel strong to face whatever consequences because what I'm claiming is right and moral,'' he said.
Sánchez and Miami residents Alberto Pérez and Pablo Rodríguez, also Democracy Movement members, are scheduled to appear at 1:30 p.m. Friday before U.S.
Magistrate Hugh Morgan in Key West.
They are charged with: conspiracy to enter Cuban territorial waters without Coast Guard authorization and knowingly entering Cuban waters without Coast Guard
authorization. They face up to 10 years in prison, fines and forfeiture of their boat if convicted.
Federal prosecutors in Miami said this was the first time that anyone has been charged with violating the Florida security zone -- established by President Bill Clinton less than a week after the Cuban military shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes over the Florida Straits on Feb. 24, 1996. Four Cuban exiles in the planes were killed.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Sabin said his office, headed by U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, consulted with U.S. Justice Department officials before charging Sánchez and the others.
``It's the first prosecution where we had the evidence to support the charges,'' Sabin said, adding that no local federal agency has ever referred such a case to the local U.S. attorney's office before now.
Sabin said the indictment does not signal a heightened effort by the U.S. government to keep exile activists from crossing into Cuban territory and potentially provoke another confrontation.
``We applied the evidence to the law and we will be uniformly applying it to anyone who violates it,'' Sabin said.
Justice Department officials were unavailable for comment Wednesday evening.
Joe Geller, an attorney representing Sánchez and the movement, called the government's move ``shocking.''
``It's unbelievable that someone who threw flowers in the water as a memorial to people killed and that someone who supports the principles of nonviolence is treated in this fashion,'' he said.
On July 14, prosecutors charged, Sánchez and his boat mates ignored bullhorn warnings and rushed into Cuban waters on a 23-foot, twin-engine vessel named My Right to Return.
The trip was part of a five-boat Democracy Movement flotilla that left a Florida Keys marina to stage a memorial for 41 Cubans -- including children -- who drowned on July 13, 1994, after their tugboat was allegedly rammed and flooded by Cuban gunboats. The Cubans had been trying to flee the island.
During the July memorial flotilla, the U.S. Coast Guard seized My Right to Return, which remains in federal custody.
``The way it works is if someone wants to depart the Florida security zone, with the intention of entering Cuban waters, they have to request a permit from the Coast
Guard,'' spokesman Ron LaBrec said.
The Florida security zone encompasses waters around the Sunshine State except for parts of the Panhandle
LaBrec said the majority of the permits given to leave the security zone of U.S. water were for recreational craft. Over 3,000 permits have been issued since 1996, he said, and only three have been declined -- all from Democracy Movement members.
``If you look at incidents in the past when there has been incursions into Cuban waters, the Cubans have exercised their authority in those waters,'' LaBrec said. ``Any activity outside of our law, could exacerbate the potential for an incident at sea. It's a violation of U.S. law. It's not a violation of U.S. law to go there for fishing.''
Geller said the group did not bother to apply for authorization in July because the Coast Guard has only turned them down.
Sánchez's attorneys also said they will likely argue that he signed the consent decree on Aug. 10, 2000, so he could get his boat back from authorities. They also plan to argue that Sánchez has a right to express himself freely under the U.S. Constitution.
``If you sign a statement that says I recognize this regulation [on the security zone], that does not preclude you later on from saying this is a violation of your
constitutional rights,'' said Randall Marshall, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, which has previously assisted Sánchez in civil disputes with the United States.