A government employee speaks by phone be
Adalberto Roque  /  AFP-Getty Images
A government employee speaks by phone before a mural painting of the five Cubans jailed in the United States in Havana on Tuesday.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 8/10/2005 10:47:17 AM ET 2005-08-10T14:47:17

HAVANA — Roberto Gonzalez feels vindicated by a U.S. court.

Since 1998, when his older brother Rene was arrested as a Cuban spy operating in the United States, he argued that it was “absurd” to think a Miami court would be capable of providing a fair or impartial trial to anyone aligned with Fidel Castro.

On Tuesday, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta agreed with him.

The panel of judges threw out the convictions of Rene Gonzalez and four other admitted Cuban agents, and ordered a new trial outside of the city of Miami, home to some 700,000 Cuban exiles.

After deliberating on the defense’s appeal for the past 17 months, the court agreed that excessive publicity surrounding the 2001 trial and “pervasive community prejudice” impeded a fair proceeding.

Gonzalez, a Havana trial lawyer, praised the court’s decision. "The world is upside down. The good guys are in jail while the criminals go free,” Gonzalez said.

U.S. sees 'intensive espionage activities'
But, that’s not how the U.S. government views the issue.

In a 2003 “Fact Sheet” on Cuban spying, the State Department charged that Havana for years has targeted the U.S. for “intensive espionage activities,” highlighting this case.

Felipe Leon  /  NBC News
Roberto Gonzalez, brother of Rene Gonzalez, says his brother is "not a spy."

During the seven-month trial of the "Cuban Wasp Network,” the prosecution charged that the five men were seasoned Cuban intelligence officers, operating a sophisticated espionage ring.

In the original court complaint, the FBI accused the agents of aiming to infiltrate radical Cuban exile organizations as well as penetrate the Miami-based Southern Command and the U.S. military headquarters for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The defendants admitted to the first charge but denied the second, claiming their mission solely entailed gathering details about the paramilitary activities of extremists in the Cuban exile community, responsible for bombings in Cuba.

Perhaps an agent, but not a spy
Roberto Gonzalez is quick to underscore his brother’s innocence, even though he admits he had no idea Rene worked for Cuban state security until his FBI arrest.

“Rene is a Cuban government agent, but not a spy. He did nothing to harm U.S. national defense. He was trying to stop the terrorist attacks against his country.”

In the 93-page opinion, the court overturned their sentences, which were recently described as “harsh” and “arbitrary” by a United Nations panel.

Rene Gonzalez, 49 years old and serving 15 years, received the lightest sentence while three others were condemned to life sentences and a fifth was sentenced to 19 years.

Irma Gonzalez, Rene’s teenage daughter, hopes that the appeals court decision is the “first step” to bringing him home.

That sentiment is shared by other family members of the “Cuban five.”

Maria Eugenia Guerrero cried when she heard the news that the court had ordered a new trial for her brother. Antonio Guerrero, 46, and an American citizen, who is serving life plus two additional consecutive 5-year sentences.

“He’ll be home soon,” she said.

The ball is now in the prosecution’s court. It can appeal the 11th Court’s decision over the next 21 days, initiate a new trial or drop the case altogether.

Mary Murray is an NBC News producer based in Havana, Cuba.

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