By JENNIFER BABSON
In a surprise move, Senior U.S. District Judge Norman C. Roettger acquitted two Democracy Movement members of violating Florida security zone regulations when they entered Cuban territorial waters in July without U.S. Coast Guard authorization.
Alberto Pérez and Pablo Rodríguez had been charged with intentionally violating the Florida Security Zone, along with Ramón Saúl Sánchez, the Democracy Movement leader.
Sánchez's attorney also asked for an acquittal, a motion denied by the judge. The trial against Sanchez will continue.
Defense attorneys for Pérez and Rodríguez asked the judge to acquit the pair, arguing that the government had not provided evidence that they had intentionally violated those rules. Judge Roettger agreed.
The men could've faced up to 10 years in prison and $20,000 in fines.
A 1996 regulation makes it illegal for those on a privately-owned boat less than 165 feet long to depart the Security Zone skirting most of Florida -- intending to enter Cuban waters -- unless they first obtain Coast Guard permission.
After the decision, Democracy supporters erupted in tears and hugged each other in the hallway outside the courtroom. Rodríguez, a land surveyor, and his son Leo, 24, embraced in tears. But both men said they intended to stay at the trial to support Sanchez.
''It's not over, there's still one more to go,'' Rodríguez said. ``As long as there is one man on trial . . .''
''I'm very happy,'' Sanchez said. ``I thank God. This happens in a country of justice.''