(CNSNews.com) - Two elderly Cuban exiles from the Miami area, captured two years ago in Cuba with a cache of weapons, have been sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison by a Castro government tribunal.
Cuban authorities accused both 76-year-old Ernestino Abreu and 66-year-old Vicente Marcelino Rodriguez Martinez of attempting to launch an armed invasion when they landed in Cuba in 1998, under what Cuban authorities are calling "mysterious circumstances."
The two were sentenced in a court in Cuba's western province of Pinar del Rio, where they originally landed. They came to Cuba from Florida with what Cuban authorities describe as "a motorboat laden with rifles and pistols."
Both Abreu and Martinez pleaded not guilty.
Cuba's best-known human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez told the BBC the 15- year prison sentences were disproportionate to the crime.
"The tribunal did not take into account the defendants' advanced age or precarious health," Sanchez said. Miami relatives of the two men say they are not in the best of health.
Three local residents -- nephews of Martinez -- also received prison sentences for assisting the two men.
Rolando Corrales Martinez received a 10-year sentence, while Jose Maria Corrales Martinez and Mario Miguel Millo Martinez, both received 6-year sentences.
Cuban security forces captured the two men after searching for several days in the mountains of Pinar Del Rio.
Abreu is a former leader of the Miami-based "Patriotic Cuban Junta." He is also one of eight exile leaders who met with President Clinton at the White House in 1996 after two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down in the Florida Straits.
Martinez once fought in Castro's rebel army, but later changed sides and served jail time before going into exile in the United States.
Their defense lawyers said both men buried their weapons after landing in Cuba and argued they were too old to commit a rebellion.
Reports say the two men were members of a quasi-commando group known as the "Movement of Revolutionary Recovery" which was trying to infiltrate Cuba in hopes of promoting an uprising against the Castro government.
The Castro government had no official reaction to the sentencing. Reports indicate the case has not been covered by the Cuban government, its state media or Radio Havana.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher criticized the lengthy sentences for the two men.
"If these reports of 15-year sentences are true, we think these are outrageous sentences in light of the advanced age and failing health of the defendants," Boucher said.