MARIANNA, Fla. (AP) — The first member of a Cuban spy ring to complete his U.S. sentence walked out of prison Friday as news of his freedom bombarded the airwaves hundreds of miles away on the communist island.
One of the so-called "Cuban Five," 55-year-old Rene Gonzalez served about 13 years on a conviction for participating in a scheme to infiltrate U.S. military bases and keep tabs on Cuban exiles for Fidel Castro's government. Now Gonzalez must serve three years' probation in the U.S., unless his attorney can persuade a federal judge to let him return to Cuba where he's hailed as a hero.
His attorney, Phil Horowitz, told The Associated Press that he picked up Gonzalez at the prison around 5:30 a.m. EDT. Gonzalez was met after his release by his two daughters, Irma and Ivette; his brother, Roberto; and his father, Candido, according to Venezuela-based television network TeleSUR.
Horowitz said Gonzalez is declining interview requests and is concerned for his safety. For now, he wants to stay out of the spotlight.
"He's been in prison for 13 years. I think it's time to give him some peace," said Horowitz, who wouldn't reveal where Gonzalez was planning to serve his probation. "I do believe he needs some time to decompress."
The Chicago native who has dual American and Cuban citizenship was released early from a 15-year sentence because of good behavior and time he served before and during his trial.
Gonzalez and the other four Cubans were convicted in 2001 of being part of the ring known as the "Wasp Network" that sought to spy on U.S. military installations in South Florida, Cuban exile groups and politicians opposed to Castro's government.
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 an unfair location for the trial.
But prosecutors said the spy ring's work had deadly consequences. Another member of the group was convicted of murder conspiracy for the 1996 downing of a plane flown by the "Brothers to the Rescue" operation, which dropped pro-democracy leaflets in Cuba and helped migrants trying to reach the U.S. The plane was shot down by Cuban fighter jets. Court documents say that Gonzalez, himself a pilot, had infiltrated the anti-Castro group and flown with them to gather intelligence.
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.
In Miami, there was little immediate public reaction to Gonzalez's release.
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."
People on the streets of Havana, where the government has been bombarding the airwaves in recent days with demands that Gonzalez be allowed to come to Cuba, said they were happy he's out of jail but criticized the terms of his release.
"What they're doing to him is an injustice because if he served his time, the right thing is to send him here to his family," said Luis Mariano Ochoa, a 49-year-old Health Ministry worker. He called the Cuban Five heroes.
"They went overboard with the sentences for the Five, they're exaggerated," said Orestes Machado, a 46-year-old fumigator. "It's a farce, what they did, and it's time for (Gonzalez) to come home."
His probation term began the moment Gonzalez left the federal prison in Marianna, in Florida's Panhandle. A federal judge has refused to modify probation to allow him to return to Cuba, but Horowitz said he's planning another request.
Gonzalez's wife and daughters live in Cuba. His wife was also implicated in the spy network and deported. She cannot 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 the Cuban Five 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."
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 and he'd be beyond U.S. supervision.
"He poses a particular, long-term threat to this country," Miller said in court papers.
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.
"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," said Ros-Lehtinen, who is Cuban-American.
Anderson reported from Miami. AP Hispanic Affairs Writer Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this story from Miami. AP Writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to the report from Havana.
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