UK lawyer visits Havana
By Steve Cottingham of Thompson’s Solicitors, UK
The campaign to release the Miami Five is gathering strength.
In March 2003 I was in Havana attending a conference of lawyers organised by the CTC. Although the conference was ostensibly about the impact of globalisation and new liberalism on workers rights, it was inevitable that the issue of the Miami Five would be raised.
Delegates to the conference were privileged to hear from Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Peoples Assembly. However the news that he conveyed was far from encouraging.
The Five are appealing against their convictions. Briefs were due to be lodged with the Eleventh Circuit Appeal Court in Atlanta by the first week in April.
Once again however the Five’s circumstances have taken a turn for the worse. All of them have recently been transferred to Special Housing Units (SHU) known as “the hole” in US prison jargon. Although all have been model prisoners, this was the third time that they had been placed in solitary confinement. The first time was before the trial. Secondly they had been put in solitary for 47 days during the trial process. On this third occasion, solitary confinement was more severe and punitive than before. The Five had effectively been banned from contact with the outside world. This included their lawyers, even though preparation for their appeals was at a crucial stage.
Alarcon then told us about Gerardo Hernandez who is in prison in Lompac, California. Gerardo had been taken from his workplace on 28th February and put in the SHU without being given any reason. After being held there for less than an hour he was put in a cell for prisoners who were punished for bad behaviour. This is an even worse place than “the hole” known as “the box”. This cell had no windows. The bars in front of the cell had a mesh screen. The door was made of metal. There was slot for food. Two fluorescent lights in the cell were on 24 hours a day so that Gerardo could not tell day from night.
The cell was very small. It contained a toilet, a concrete bed and a thin bag for sleeping. Gerardo’s clothes had been taken away from him and so he simply wore underpants and T-shirt. He was not allowed shoes. No printed material was allowed in his cell. Signs on the cell stated that no one was to have contact with him.
When Gerardo was moved from his cell, the corridors were emptied, to ensure that no one could contact him. He could not see into the 14 adjoining cells. However some of the inmates in those cells were disturbed and screamed at times. Although Gerardo asked for forms to register a complaint, he was told that the authorities were out of stock at present.
In addition to being denied routine correspondence, Gerardo was unable to correspond with his lawyers. Eventually on 14th March he was told that he would be given legal correspondence. However all other restrictions remained.
Although Gerardo’s cell lights were left on all the time, the lights in other cells were turned off on occasions. Also the other prisoners in the SHU were allowed telephone calls and could be taken to the shower.
Despite these inhuman conditions, Gerardo was in good health and spirits. He did however say that the conditions were worse than the isolation he had suffered in prison in Miami. Nevertheless he drew his strength from the comradeship of the other four, who, he knew, were receiving the same treatment.
Alarcon described these conditions as “exceptionally harsh”. In his view they amounted to a form of torture. Alarcon called for support by writing letters. He had no news of the other four at that time. However plans had been made for them to be visited.
Alarcon relayed the experience of our own Father Geoff Bottoms who had attempted to visit Ramon Labanino in Beaumont, Texas. Even though he had travelled all the way from the UK for this purpose, Geoff was bluntly refused permission to meet Ramon and was sent away.
The lawyers who attended the conference were mainly from Cuba, USA and UK. We were all shocked to hear about the conditions in which the Five were being held.
I was able to give a brief report to the conference on the British campaign to free the Five. The Cubans are aware of the response from Britain and most appreciative of our support. Alarcon proved to be extremely well informed as he was able to correct my figures and tell me that, by that time, over 80 MPs had signed an Early Day Motion on this issue.
By the beginning of April, the Five had been released from solitary confinement and were back with the prison population. Leonard Weinglass, a leading member of the US Legal Defence Team has gone on record as stating that this release was due to solidarity and political pressure. There is every reason to believe that support from Britain played its part in that process. While of course we do not expect gratitude or recognition for the work done to support the Five, it is heartening to know that our efforts are closely monitored and well received in Cuba.
There is no doubt about the importance of this campaign for Cuban people. Extracts from the conference session concerning the Five was broadcast on Cuban TV.
Now that the Five have been released from solitary confinement, the next step is to pursue the appeals. The process is likely to be lengthy and complex. The outcome is at best uncertain.
The legal campaign must be supported by a political campaign. Leonard Weinglass of the legal team supporting the Five, is clear that political pressure helped to free them from solitary confinement.
The campaign to free the Five and reunite them with their families, continues. In the current political climate, the struggle will be long and difficult. We must continue to build the campaign in the UK.