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Cuba Sentences General to Death in Drug Scandal

<i> From Times Staff and Wire Reports</i>

A highly decorated three-star general who fought alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution 30 years ago was sentenced to death Friday along with three other officers in a drug- smuggling and corruption scandal.

After deliberating for two days, a military tribunal also sentenced 10 others, all army and state security officers, to long prison terms, the state news agency AIN reported.

Sentenced to death were Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, former head of Cuban military forces in Angola and Ethiopia and a hero of Castro’s 1959 Communist revolution; his aide Capt. Jorge Martinez; Col. Antonio de la Guardia, a former intelligence agency chief, and Maj. Amado Padron, who was under Ochoa’s command.

In his summation Tuesday, prosecutor Gen. Juan Escalona said the 14, who all pleaded guilty and were stripped of their titles and honors, had “stuck a dagger into the back of the nation and the people.”

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Asking for the death penalty, Escalona said the defendants “challenged the credibility of Fidel Castro.” The Cuban leader has consistently denied charges by Washington of Cuban links to drugs traffickers.

If the death sentences are carried out, the condemned will be blindfolded, put up against a wall and shot by a firing squad.

Some diplomats said they expect Castro to pardon Ochoa. European diplomatic sources said Castro hinted at the possibility of clemency last week with European Community ambassadors.

Cuba’s top court met Friday to consider clemency requests by lawyers for the accused, and it was expected to rule on the issue within 72 hours, according to the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina.

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An earlier military hearing recommended that Ochoa be tried for high treason.

During the trial, Ochoa, who in 30 years rose from a poor farm youth to Cuban army general, admitted committing treason and said “one pays for treason with his life.”

Ochoa and the 13 others were charged with embezzlement and helping Colombia’s notorious Medellin drug cartel to smuggle cocaine into the United States for at least 2 1/2 years. They were said to have accepted about $3.4 million in bribes in return for allowing drug planes to land in Cuba, where the cargo was loaded onto speedboats for shipment to Florida.

The officers were also convicted of smuggling diamonds, ivory, sugar and U.S. currency.

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Sentenced to 30 years were Eduardo Diaz, Antonio Sanchez, Alexis Lago, Miguel Ruiz, Rosa Maria Abierno and De la Guardia’s brother Patricio, a general. Luis Pineda, Gabriel Prendes and Leonel Estevez received 25 years, and Antonio Rodriguez received 10 years.

The scandal also led to the dismissal of the powerful interior minister, Jose Abrantes, and the head of the agency that controls private and commercial air traffic in Cuba, Vicente Gomez Lopez.

Among those who testified for the prosecution at the trial, which was broadcast on Cuban television, was Defense Minister Raul Castro, brother of the Cuban leader.

In Washington, there was no surprise among foreign policy experts about the outcome of the Havana trial.

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Prof. William LeoGrande, a Latin American specialist with American University’s school of government, said the death sentences and lengthy jail terms were to be expected.

“These are people who’ve made Fidel Castro look foolish,” LeoGrande said. “Castro has said time and again that Cuba was not involved in drugs, and these people were doing it all along.”

Last month, after Ochoa was accused, Castro ordered that any unidentified planes entering Cuban airspace be shot down. However, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials later reported that drug-carrying planes continued to transit Cuba without interference.

Elliott Abrams, former assistant secretary of state for Latin America who served for the last four years of the Reagan Administration, saw Friday’s verdict as a political reaction to a potential challenge to the 30-year dictatorship.

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“I think the script probably called for the death sentences, to be followed by clemency from Fidel Castro,” he said. “Ochoa is the most popular man in Cuba’s armed forces, and killing him won’t help Castro. He’s too smart to do that.”

During the trial, Raul Castro hinted that Ochoa was trying to build his own power base, testifying that the general had been “spreading around gifts and handing out objects of value, mainly to officers” in an attempt to create “links of gratitude to his person.”

Jacqueline Tillman, executive director of the Washington office of the Miami-based Cuban-American Foundation, a militantly anti-Castro organization, called the process “a Stalinist show trial.”

Tillman, a Latin American adviser to the National Security Council in the Reagan Administration, also attributed the harsh judgment of Ochoa to the political threat he posed to the Cuban leadership.

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But Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has long taken a special interest in Cuba, declined to speculate about the political aspects of the Havana trial. In a statement issued through the committee, Pell said:

“The United States should take advantage of Cuba’s stated interest in drug problems by moving now to improve cooperation between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban border patrol to intercept drug traffic transiting Cuba.”

Committee staff member Barry Sklar said the chairman discussed the issue with Castro in a visit to Havana last November, complaining that Cuba was failing to cooperate in combatting drug shipments.

Times staff writer Don Shannon, in Washington, contributed to this story.

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GEN. OCHOA’S RISE AND FALL In 30 years, Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez rose from farm youth to three-star general.

Born into poor family of farmers in eastern mountains of Cuba . . . joined Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries in March, 1958 . . . took part in takeover of Santa Clara in central Cuba, one of milestones that led dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee and Castro to take power on Jan. 1, 1959 . . . as member of new Cuban army, was sent to Venezuela in 1960s to aid leftist guerrillas . . . served as army commander for eastern Cuba . . . sent to Ethiopia as chief of Cuban forces there in 1978 . . . returned home and won all of Cuba’s major decorations, including rarely awarded Hero of the Republic. . . sent to Nicaragua to head team of advisers to leftist Sandinista government after dictator Anastasio Somoza’s ouster in 1979. . . went to Angola to head support operations for Cuba’s forces early this year . . . expected to be appointed armed forces commander for western third of Cuba, including Havana, until drug scandal thwarted career.

SOURCE: Reuters


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