MIAMI — Responding to a lawsuit filed by a group of 25 prominent Miami lawyers, a federal judge Tuesday ordered a temporary halt to the repatriation of Cubans being held in indefinite detention at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The order from U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins was issued here just minutes before a group of 23 Cuban refugees was to be flown aboard a military transport to Havana from the camp on Cuba's southeast coast. A full hearing on the issue is scheduled for today.
"These people are being coerced into returning and being misinformed by our government about what will happen when they are returned," said Manuel Vazquez, a Miami attorney and member of the Cuban American Bar Assn.
"Going back to Havana is a ridiculous option," said Vazquez. "The Cuban government has promised they would not be persecuted but we know this is a government with no qualms about terrorizing people."
In a 63-page complaint filed here Monday, attorneys for the internees demanded that all 32,000 Cubans being held at Guantanamo and in Panama be permitted to enter the United States.
The suit alleges that the U.S. government is violating U.S. and international law by interning the Cubans, all of whom were plucked from rafts in August and September as they fled Cuba for Florida. The lawsuit also demands improved medical treatment for 250 pregnant women and asks that the refugees be granted access to attorneys.
Reversing 30 years of policy to shut down a chaotic flotilla of homemade rafts, the Clinton Administration announced on Aug. 19 that no \o7 balseros\f7 --rafters--would be allowed into the United States without first returning home and applying through normal channels.
U.S. officials said that many of the Cubans taken off the plane Tuesday were "very upset" to learn that they would be staying in the camps.
About 1,000 Cubans have indicated an interest in returning home but only about 40 have actually been repatriated. Christine Shelly, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, emphasized that all repatriations are voluntary.
Although the detention policy was grudgingly accepted by most Cuban Americans as necessary to stand up to Cuban President Fidel Castro and shut off the dangerous high seas exodus, pressure to release the \o7 balseros\f7 from the primitive camps has been steadily mounting.
"To detain indefinitely innocent men, women and children, crammed in tents behind barbed wire, is antithetical to everything the United States of America stands for," said Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, a former Miami city attorney, at a press conference outside the federal courthouse here Monday. "This suit asks the court to tell the government it can't treat human beings like this."
Added attorney Xavier L. Suarez, former Miami mayor, "So many people in Miami realize: 'There but for the grace of God am I.' I came here at 12. So many of us came from there."
Named as defendants in the suit are several members of President Clinton's Cabinet, including Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Secretary of Defense William J. Perry.
Among the various plaintiffs named in the class-action suit are U.S. relatives of camp residents, several political dissidents in the tent cities and a 12-year-old violinist, Lizbet Martinez, who has become a \o7 cause celebre\f7 in Miami after a recording of her rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" was heard by thousands by way of news reports and over a special telephone line.
"Medical and sanitary conditions in these camps are appalling," said Vazquez. "We have 3,000 children suffering there in deplorable conditions and our government is moving too slowly to provide for them in a humane way."
The judge's order temporarily stymies the Administration's plans to reduce tension in the stark Guantanamo camps by siphoning off those few who volunteer to return home.
More than 8,000 Cubans from Guantanamo have chosen to go to a temporary camp in Panama. That leaves about 23,600 in Guantanamo, a 45-square-mile base leased to the United States in 1903. More than 7,000 Haitians also remain at Guantanamo.
The temporary halt to repatriations comes as representatives of the U.S. and Cuban governments were meeting in Havana for the second day on migration issues. These talks are a follow-up to the Sept. 9 agreement in which the Castro government stopped permitting the rafters to set sail in exchange for a U.S. promise to increase to 20,000 annually the number of visas granted to Cubans.
Lawyers for the Cuban rafters argued that those held in Guantanamo and in Panama are now on U.S. territory and should be allowed to make asylum claims. "These people have a right not to be held in limbo," said Harold Koh, a Yale Law School professor who successfully sued the government on behalf of Haitian refugees held at Guantanamo and denied entrance to the United States after they tested positive for the AIDS virus. He is advising the Cuban American attorneys.
Until the policy change announced Aug. 19, any Cuban who arrived in the United States by any means was automatically admitted and, under terms of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1962, was permitted to apply for residency after one year.
Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this story.