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Castro Ignores Appeals for Clemency, Upholds Death Sentence for Cuban Exile


MEXICO CITY — Cuba announced Sunday that its highest government council has upheld the death penalty against one of three Miami-based Cuban exiles convicted of landing on the Communist-ruled island armed for a sabotage mission.

The Council of State, led by President Fidel Castro, also commuted the death penalty against a second convicted man to 30 years in prison. The third man had also been condemned to death but the Supreme Court commuted his sentence Thursday to 30 years, the maximum prison term in Cuba.

Since a trial court issued the death sentences Jan. 11, Castro has heard an international chorus of pleas for the men's lives. Among those urging clemency were Nobel Prize-winners Oscar Arias Sanchez, the former Costa Rican president, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian novelist who is a personal friend of the Cuban leader.

The council's decision, dated Friday, was a compromise between satisfying those appeals and getting tough with the enemies of a one-party state suffering the loss of its Soviet benefactors and the worst economic crisis of its 32 years in power.

"Our decisions have to be subordinated above all to the interests of the security, stability, peace and preservation of life of our people," the council said. It warned that "revolutionary justice will show increasingly less clemency" toward Castro's opponents.

The case has unfolded as hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami petition the Bush Administration for a green light to renew armed action against Cuba and as a small pro-democracy movement steps up peaceful activity on the island.

Castro's government has arrested at least 60 political and human rights activists in recent months while trying to link their movement to terrorist activity it claims is encouraged by Washington.

The Miami men were seized Dec. 29 after crossing the Florida Straits on a yacht and coming ashore in a rubber dinghy. Cuba's Interior Ministry said they carried an assault rifle, a submachine gun, two pistols, 41 plastic incendiary devices, four chemical-irritant grenades and a smoke grenade.

In a videotape of their trial, the men said they belonged to Commandos L, a little-known paramilitary group. They confessed on the tape that they planned to bomb theaters, recreation areas and factories and to take over radio stations with the aim of sowing panic and sparking a popular rebellion against Castro.

Eduardo Diaz Betancourt, 38, identified as a frequently-jailed petty criminal in Cuba before he fled to Miami nine months ago, was the only defendant not spared from the firing squad. Cuban prosecutors called him the leader of the sabotage mission. Unlike the other two men, he has no known relatives in the United States.

His execution, which has not been scheduled, will be the most politically-charged in Cuba since July, 1990, when a firing squad shot Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa and three other military officers convicted of drug trafficking.

The council spared the life of Daniel Santovenia Fernandez, 36, son of a veteran of the ill-fated 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles backed by the CIA. The third defendant was Pedro de la Caridad Alvarez Pedroso, 26.

Cuba said it was the third attempted armed infiltration by Cuban exiles in 18 months.

While stopping short of accusing the United States of direct sponsorship of such missions, the council said Washington showed "spectacular incompetence" in failing to stop them. It said Cuban authorities handed the U.S. government a week ago the names of the heads of exile groups engaged in paramilitary training in south Florida.

U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who spoke to Cuba's foreign minister during the signing of El Salvador's peace treaty in Mexico last Thursday, denied that the three arrested men were "in any way connected with the United States."

Ricardo Bofill, president of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, a Miami-based organization with links to dissidents in Cuba, said the failed infiltration attempt was a propaganda windfall for Castro in his effort to rally Cubans against a foreign threat.

"It helps him distract attention from Cuba's severe economic problems," Bofill said in a telephone interview from Miami. "And it sends a clear message to his internal opposition that whoever tries to take power from Fidel Castro better be prepared to pay with his life."

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