ATLANTA — A "very businesslike" session between federal negotiators and leaders of rebellious Cuban inmates at the Atlanta prison produced "apparently substantial agreement" on a number of key issues, a Justice Department spokesman said Tuesday.
The spokesman, Patrick Korten, declined to discuss any details of the agreement and cautioned that a settlement of the nine-day-old siege did not appear to be imminent. It remains to be seen, he said, whether the rest of the 1,100 inmates will accept the terms of the issues on which accord has been reached.
But he described the one-hour negotiating session as encouraging, noting that it was unmarked by the "grandstanding" and "role-playing" on the part of inmate representatives that have disrupted previous talks.
"This was a useful negotiating session," Korten told reporters at an afternoon briefing across the street from the prison. "But the proof of it will come when . . . we talk with them again later on and find whether there's been some substantial progress within the general detainee population inside.
"I don't want to unduly raise anyone's hopes," he added. "What we had this afternoon was encouraging, but please, please, don't go running off and make this out to be more than it is. It's encouraging--and nothing more for the moment."
He noted that several thorny issues still remain to be worked out and that there was no guarantee negotiators would be successful in resolving them.
"Out at Oakdale," he said, referring to the Louisiana detention facility where a similar Cuban inmate mutiny was quelled Sunday, "they felt they had an agreement at one point, and it was three or four more days before people came out. There is no way to tell in something like that until they actually start walking out."
Korten said that four Cuban leaders were involved in the Atlanta prison negotiating session, which began about 12:30 p.m. None of the Cubans, he added, are among the "serious dissenters" whom federal officials have blamed for impeding progress in resolving the prison crisis.
Korten said that negotiators for both sides agreed to hold another round of talks later Tuesday after the inmate leaders have had time to take the newest proposals back to the rest of the detainees.
Earlier in the day, federal officials said they were prepared to have Roman Catholic Bishop Agustin Roman lend a hand in ending the revolt at the Atlanta prison--but only if the inmate leadership is unified and speaks with a single voice.
Roman, 58, a Cuban-born auxiliary bishop in the Miami archdiocese, played a key role in ringing down the curtain on the uprising at the federal detention center in Oakdale.
"It is important to remember, however, that the bishop's successful involvement at Oakdale came only after detainees within that facility managed to unify under a single set of leaders speaking with one voice," he said.
Korten also announced that the agreement reached at Oakdale had been read to Atlanta inmates Tuesday morning over a loudspeaker system and that copies of the pact would be distributed to them later in the day.
"It is a fair and equitable agreement, and it deserves serious consideration and acceptance by the detainees," he said.
But Steven Donziger, an Atlanta-based spokesman for the Coalition to Support Cuban Detainees, said in an interview that the Oakdale agreement is "extremely ambiguous" and relies heavily on the "good faith" of the government in living up to what the Cubans believe are the terms.
"For example, the Cubans' main concern is being deported," he said. "There's nothing in the agreement to prevent every single one from being deported if the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) chooses to do that.
"Another main concern is that the Cubans get a fair review of their cases. The agreement calls for a 'fair and equitable' review, without defining what that means. The INS considered its old review plan fair, even though it afforded Cubans almost no due process rights."
For example, he said, Cubans were not given the right to counsel, to call witnesses, to cross-examine witnesses or to appeal an unfavorable decision.
"The outcome in Atlanta will depend on the awareness of the Cubans of what happened in Oakdale and how they perceive and interpret the agreement," he said.
In Washington, however, J. Michael Quinlan, director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, repeated the Justice Department assertion that there would be a moratorium on returning Cuban detainees to their native land.
Quinlan, speaking to reporters at a midday press briefing, said that Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III has pledged a "case-by-case review of every case before anyone would be returned to Cuba." Also, Quinlan said: "There will be no unlawful physical reprisals against detainees."
In other developments Tuesday: