One of the so-called "Cuban Five," convicted of spying in the U.S. for the communist Castro government, walked out of federal prison Friday, the first of the group to complete sentences imposed a decade ago.
Rene Gonzalez, 55, served about 13 years of a 15-year sentence, with time off for good behavior and including time behind bars awaiting and during trial. His attorney, Phil Horowitz, told The Associated Press he picked up Gonzalez at the prison around 5:30 a.m. EDT. Now Gonzalez, a Chicago native who has dual American and Cuban citizenship, must serve three years' probation in the U.S., unless his attorney can persuade a Miami federal judge to let him return to Cuba.
Horowitz said for now Gonzalez wants to remain out of the limelight at an undisclosed location "anywhere from Puerto Rico to Hawaii." Horowitz said Gonzalez is declining interview requests and that he has some concern for his safety.
"He's been in prison for 13 years. I think it's time to give him some peace," he said. "I do believe he needs some time to decompress."
Gonzalez and the other four Cubans were convicted in 2001 of being part of a spy ring known as the "Wasp Network" that sought to infiltrate and report back on South Florida U.S. military installations, Cuban exile groups and politicians opposed to the government of Fidel and Raul Castro.
One of the five was convicted of murder conspiracy for the 1996 shootdown by Cuban fighter jets of planes flown by the "Brothers to the Rescue" operation, which dropped pro-democracy leaflets in Cuba and helped migrants trying to reach the U.S. Gonzalez, a pilot, flew with the group on some earlier missions as part of his intelligence cover as a purported anti-Castro militant, according to court documents.
The Cuban government hails the men as heroes, and they and their supporters have long insisted they were only in the U.S. to detect and prevent violent attacks against their country, mainly by Miami-based exile groups. They also complained that Miami was a patently unfair location for the trial, which took place following the controversial decision by the U.S. to send Elian Gonzalez back to his father in Cuba. The young Cuban boy had been found on an inner tube off Fort Lauderdale, one of three survivors of a boat that sank as those onboard tried to defect to the U.S. His mother was among those who drowned. He is not related to Rene Gonzalez.
At his December 2001 sentencing, Rene Gonzalez was unapologetic, saying the men "were convicted for having committed the crime of being men of honor."
"I have no reason to be remorseful," he said.
Jose Basulto, who heads Brothers to the Rescue, called Gonzalez a "traitor" who should renounce his U.S. citizenship and go back to Cuba.
"If anything were to happen to him, I know we will immediately be blamed," Basulto said. "Let him go to Cuba, and if anything happens to him, let it be there."
The three-year probation term began the moment Gonzalez left the federal prison in Marianna, in Florida's Panhandle. U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard in Miami preliminarily refused to modify probation to allow him to return to Cuba, but said he could request the change again. Horowitz said he will do so in the near future.
Gonzalez has a wife and two daughters in Cuba; his wife was also implicated in the spy network and was deported after the men's arrests. She cannot legally return to the U.S. and the couple has not seen each other for over a decade.
On Friday, the U.S.-based group that has lobbied in favor of Gonzalez and the other Cuban Five members slammed the U.S. for not allowing Gonzalez to return to Cuba.
"He has been a model prisoner, even while suffering the indignity of being inhumanely deprived visits from his wife for more than 11 years," the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five wrote. "However, the U.S. government insists on punishing him and his family even more by requiring him to remain in Florida for the three years of his" probation.
The committee has created an online petition to urge President Barack Obama to allow Gonzalez to return to Cuba.
The case's chief prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Heck Miller, said the U.S. opposes allowing Gonzalez to return to Cuba because he might resume his spy career using his U.S. citizenship and because it would "effectively put him beyond any supervision by the court."
"He poses a particular, long-term threat to this country," Miller said in court papers.
Among the conditions of Gonzalez's probation is one barring him from "associating with or visiting specific places where individuals or groups such as terrorists, members of organizations advocating violence (and) organized crime figures are known to be or frequent."
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the U.S. should not keep Gonzalez in this country.
"Rene Gonzalez, like the regime he serves, is an enemy of America," said Ros-Lehtinen, who is Cuban-American. "He has American blood on his hands and dedicated his life to harming our country on behalf of a regime that is a state sponsor of terrorism."