With relatives looking on, 23 men arrested nearly three years ago in the violent occupation of the Mexican Embassy went on trial Wednesday for the assault, which led to a diplomatic crisis.
A government prosecutor sought prison terms of up to 12 years for the men, who allegedly stole a bus and crashed it through the embassy gates in February 2002 amid a wave of rumors the mission was issuing visas to all Cubans who showed up.
Members of the group demanded visas and refused to leave before they were arrested within two days by specially trained Cuban police in a lightning fast pre-dawn eviction.
Two relatives per defendant were allowed into the trial at the Popular Municipal Tribunal in Havana in the 10 de Octubre neighborhood. Proceedings were closed to international media.
“I think that everything will go well,” said Nancy Perez, wife of defendant Enrique Mendez Sosa, outside the courthouse before the trial started.
Her husband was among a dozen men facing 12-year prison terms.
The prosecution sought 10-year sentences for six other defendants and five years for the rest, according to the non-governmental Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Government blames U.S. Radio Marti
Fidel Castro’s communist government accused the U.S. government’s Radio Marti of provoking the occupation by repeatedly broadcasting a sound bite by then-Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda saying the embassy’s doors “are open” to Cuban citizens.
Officials for Radio Marti, operated in Miami by anti-Castro Cuban exiles, denied provoking the rumors, which drew hundreds of people to the mission seeking visas.
Many of those who crowded outside the mission said they hoped to get visas to Mexico, then later emigrate to the United States in hopes of finding well-paying jobs and being reunited with relatives there.
Castaneda later said his comments, made during a visit to Florida that week, were taken out of context.
A written statement by the human rights commission said hundreds of people were rounded up at the time and all were subsequently released except for the 23 who went on trial Wednesday.