four were repatriated
HAVANA TIMES —The case of the 24 boat people who arrived to a beacon on Sugarloaf Key off the Florida coast took a radical turn Thursday afternoon, when federal authorities decided to reconsider the claims of the group and send 20 of them to the US Guantanamo Bay Naval Base as political refugees.
“The authorities have informed us that they reviewed the case and will send 20 of the group to the Guantanamo base after demonstrating a credible fear of reprisals if they are returned to Cuba,” said lawyer Willy Allen, who represents the boat people in their petition to remain in United States.
Allen added that the remaining four would be repatriated to Cuba at any time. On Friday, the Coast Guard issued a statement officially announcing the return of the four Cubans as part of a group of 63 in the custody of US authorities.
The Coast Guard confirmed that the remaining 20 rafters will be sent to Guantanamo in the near future without providing a date.
The group of 24 rafters was at the mercy of imminent deportation after an adverse court ruling on Tuesday. They revived their claim for asylum during a special hearing before federal Judge Darrin Gayles. The key to the reassessment of the case was a letter released yesterday, in which the Cubans denounce abuses committed during their presence on a Coast Guard cutter after being arrested on May 20.
An SOS message in a bottle
“We have spent 37 days sleeping on the floor, the food is fit for a dog, they mistreat us including violence and some of the group are sick from the stress, this is Hell,” states the handwritten letter, which was released into the sea from the Coast Guard cutter.
The letter, two handwritten pages stuffed in a bottle, was found in the sea by a fisherman who does not understand Spanish, but understood the distress message through its international symbolism, written on one of the sheets of paper: SOS.
The fisherman handed the message to Coast Guard agents, who put it in the hands of Dexter Lee, representative of the Department of Justice. Lee confirmed the validity of document and gave it to the legal team representing the rafters.
The letter was written on June 26th and has now become key evidence in the case before the federal court in Miami.
The lawyers filed an emergency motion to stop the deportation order, but judge Gayles denied the motion on grounds that he lacks authority to stop it.
The Lawyers, who had filed the petition for the boat people, maintain they should be considered “dry feet” [for having reached the US Cay] and be allowed to stay in US territory. The believe that a new chapter in the legal arguments now opens with the appearance of alleged mistreatment after the arrest of the group.
“We need to speak to the detainees but the government argues that being on a warship, they are constitutionally barred from reaching them,” said Luis Fernandez, a constitutional lawyer and member of the legal team.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has opened an internal investigation into the allegations of the Cubans.
The judge said he will soon make a decision on the type of procedure that will apply in the case. The issue, which will be determined by Gayles, is whether he will make a summary determination on the lawyers request to let the 20 rafters be admitted as “dry feet” or if he chooses to extend the process to trial, for which the preparation would take about two months.
The group of immigrants reached the US Shoal lighthouse, eight miles from Sugarloaf Key, and clung to the structure as a lifeline to justify that had touched “United States soil”. After a lawsuit was filed on an emergency basis by nine lawyers of the Democracy Movement, judge Gayles ruled Tuesday against the arguments of the rafters, opening the way for repatriation.
The option of taking them to the Guantanamo base leaves open a possibility that they could be brought back to the United States at a later date if they win the pending legal case, or be sent as refugees to a third country, as has happened on previous occasions.
Thanks to the letter released on Wednesday, for the first time the names of the group -two women and 22 men, and their origin was made public. The list is as follows: