- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

The United States yesterday sent back 15 Cubans who recently fled for Miami on a stolen boat. The government of Fidel Castro promised they would not be executed.

The Cubans will face charges of armed robbery and kidnapping, charges that carry a 10-year maximum sentence, instead of the more serious charge of hijacking.

Havana praised the U.S. decision as a “valuable contribution” in its efforts to stem hijacking and illegal departures from the island.

On April 11, the Cuban government executed three black Cubans who were accused of hijacking a ferry during an attempt to flee the island. Critics of the Castro government said the sentence reflected racism in Cuba because it marked the first time anyone had been executed for hijacking.

The State Department defended the decision to send the 15 Cubans back to the communist regime.

“We carried this out consistent with our standard practice under the migration accord with Cuba,” said Philip T. Reeker, State Department spokesman.

“The Department of Homeland Security interviewed all 15 individuals to determine whether they had protection concerns and found they were ineligible for protection because they had committed acts of violence in Cuba, as well as those who had committed acts of violence against the Coast Guard personnel.”

On July 15, 11 men and one woman overpowered three men guarding the 36-foot Gaviota 16, a Cuban government mapping and geological research vessel.

Cuba immediately denounced the theft and kidnapping as a hijacking.

The next day the boat was stopped off the Bahamas by the U.S. Coast Guard, and the boat was returned to Cuban authorities. On Thursday, Cuba promised the group would not be executed, and yesterday all 15 were sent back to the island.

Mr. Reeker said that the Cuban government had offered the United States “a formal diplomatic note” saying it viewed this situation as different from the April hijacking, and it gave a commitment that this group would not be executed.

Mr. Reeker said the State Department was concerned about the lack of due process in Cuba, but ultimately decided to accept the Cuban government’s commitment.

“This action makes the U.S. complicit in the fate of the returned refugees,” said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican, in a statement yesterday. “This act of infamy in coordination with the Cuban tyranny is a condemnable monstrosity.”

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