updated 8/9/2005 10:00:01 PM ET 2005-08-10T02:00:01

A federal appeals court threw out the convictions and sentences of five men accused of being Cuban spies, ruling Tuesday that their trial was not fair because of community prejudice and extensive publicity.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta unanimously ordered a new trial. The defense had argued that even though none of the jurors was Cuban, prejudice against Fidel Castro and his communist government runs high in Miami.

Federal prosecutors had no immediate comment on the ruling.

The court also overturned the murder conspiracy conviction of alleged ringleader Gerardo Hernandez. He had been convicted for his role in the deaths of four Cuban exiles shot down by Cuban MiGs in international airspace in 1996, an event that sparked widespread condemnation.

All five Cubans were convicted in 2001 of serving as unregistered agents of a foreign government, and three received life prison terms. Evidence presented at trial pointed to two of them targeting U.S. military installations from Key West to Tampa and to the ring spying on Cuban exiles.

The five admit being Cuban agents but said they were spying on “terrorist” exile groups opposed to Castro, not the U.S. government. The defense said the agents’ primary mission was to thwart extremist exiles who supported terrorism in Cuba, including a string of Havana bombings that killed a tourist and injured 12 others in 1997.

Prosecutors under fire
The judges faulted prosecutors for making inflammatory remarks in their closing arguments, such as saying jurors would be abandoning their community if they acquitted the spies sent to “destroy the United States.”

The court panel also wrote: “The perception that these (exile) groups could harm jurors that rendered a verdict unfavorable to their views was palpable.”

Defense attorneys praised the decision as courageous and an adherence to the rule of law. They were confident their clients would be vindicated and should be freed pending a new trial. Apart from the three sentenced to life, one received 19 years in prison and the other got 15 years.

Cuba’s cause célèbre
The five were indicted in 1998 as part of the 14-member Wasp Network, but they were the only ones who went to trial.

Cuba has made the five a cause célèbre, featuring them on a Web site and issuing a CD of one spy’s jailhouse poetry set to music. Free the Five committees were set up in several countries.

Cuban Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon applauded the ruling Tuesday and insisted the men be freed pending a new trial.

“If they want to accuse them of something else, then accuse them, present evidence, and search for an impartial tribunal,” Alarcon told Granma International, the Communist Party’s weekly newspaper distributed overseas.

Manny Vazquez, a director of the Cuban American National Foundation, called the court’s comments an “insult to the Cuban community” in Miami.

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