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A Miami attorney wants to set an example for South Florida lawyers concerned about human rights abuses in Cuba. Last month, Pedro J. Martinez-Fraga, a partner at Greenberg Traurig, filed suit against Cuban leader Fidel Castro, other top Cuban officials and the Cuban government in U.S. District Court in Miami on behalf of jailed Cuban journalist Omar Rodriguez Saludes. Saludes’ mother, who is named as a plaintiff, lives in Monticello, Ky. Martinez-Fraga, who said he is doing the case pro bono, has not been in contact with the imprisoned journalist but has spoken with Saludes’ mother, Olivia Saludes. She has agreed to proceed with the suit. To establish jurisdiction in a U.S. court in a case involving a foreign government and a foreign national not living in the United States, Martinez-Fraga cited the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law originally passed by Congress in 1789 to allow victims of piracy on the high seas to sue pirates. He’s also suing the Cuban government under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Martinez-Fraga said this is the first time that a lawsuit has been filed in U.S courts on behalf of a living Cuban dissident. He hopes it will be an effective new legal tactic against the Castro regime. “This is something that should be emulated,” said Martinez-Fraga, who chairs the international litigation section at Greenberg Traurig. “We have acted properly in filing wrongful death actions against the Republic of Cuba on behalf of the dead. But we also need to protect and give a voice to the living.” Martinez-Fraga also filed a parallel claim with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C. The general allegations are that Saludes has been wrongfully incarcerated and both mentally and physically tortured. On the heels of Martinez-Fraga’s lawsuit, Judicial Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based group, filed a lawsuit in late April in U.S. District Court in Miami on behalf of two jailed Cuban political dissidents — an economist named Marta Beatriz Roque and a journalist named Normando Hernandez Gonzalez. “I have not come across any other actions — than these two lawsuits — under the Alien Tort Claims Act for people who are still alive,” said Ed Farres, an attorney with Judicial Watch, which has an office in Miami. Farres said there may be more lawsuits to come. In March and early April, Saludes, Roque and Gonzalez were rounded up and jailed with about 70 others in a Cuban government crackdown on dissidents. Saludes is an independent journalist who, before his arrest in March, traveled around Cuba by bicycle and wrote stories for the Nueva Prensa Agency on a manual typewriter that he shared with other reporters. He wrote articles titled “The Critical and Grave Conditions of Cuban Dissident” and “Habeas Corpus Rights Denied to the Four Dissidents.” In April, after five days of trial, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison on charges that he conspired with U.S. diplomat James Cason to undermine the Castro regime. Cason, who is stationed at the U.S. mission in Havana, has called the charges “lies” and said contact with dissidents is a normal part of an American diplomat’s work. In contrast to the Alien Tort Claims Act, there have been many suits filed in U.S. courts against foreign governments under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act since the law was revised by Congress in 1996. It changed a bedrock principle of international law that individuals cannot sue other autonomous nations. In May 2001, Miami lawyer Andrew Hall won a judgment of more than $20 million in U.S. District Court in Washington against the government of Iraq on behalf of four U.S. citizens who were illegally detained by the Saddam Hussein regime after the 1991 Gulf War. In March, Hall collected the multimillion-dollar judgment from frozen Iraqi assets for his clients. Since the 1996 revisions, there have been a number of lawsuits against Cuba on behalf of deceased plaintiffs. Under that law, in 1997, a federal lawsuit was filed in Miami on behalf of three Cuban-American members of Brothers to the Rescue who were shot down and killed by the Cuban Air Force while flying over the Florida Straits. In 1997, they were awarded $187 million by U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King. In the waning days of the Clinton administration, relatives of the deceased Brothers to the Rescue members were able to collect roughly half of the award from frozen Cuban government assets. Last month, under the 1996 law, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Leesfield awarded the family of U.S. businessman Howard F. Anderson, who was executed by a Cuban firing squad in 1961, $67 million against the Cuban government. No money, however, has been collected in the case. DEAD LETTER UNTIL RECENTLY In 1991, Congress renamed the Alien Tort Claims Act the Torture Protection Act. It allows claims on behalf of foreign nationals not living in the United States against another foreign national. The Alien Tort Claims Act was pretty much a dead letter until 1980, when a Paraguayan national named Joel Filartiga filed suit in U.S. District Court in New York against the inspector general of police in Paraguay for the torture and killing of his son, Joelito. After the case was dismissed at the trial level for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a landmark ruling, reversed the decision and held that a foreign national can sue another foreign national for acts that violate “universally accepted norms of the international law of human rights.” The ruling, according to Martinez-Fraga, has since been upheld in more than two dozen cases. In 1995, for example, the 2nd Circuit allowed a human rights lawsuit to proceed against former Serbian paramilitary leader Radovan Karadzic. The Filartiga decision, the court wrote, “recognized the important principle that the venerable Alien Tort Act, enacted in 1789 but rarely invoked since then, validly creates federal court jurisdiction for suits alleging torts committed anywhere in the world against aliens in violation of the law of nations.” Last year, three Salvadoran nationals, citing the 1789 law, successfully sued two former Salvadoran generals in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach. The plaintiffs alleged that the former generals, now living in Florida, were complicit in the torture of civilians in the 1980s. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $54.6 million in damages, though little of that has been collected so far. HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD In the new Cuban journalist lawsuit, Martinez-Fraga said, a copy of his complaint, translated into Spanish, has been served on Castro, his brother Raul and other Cuban government officials. In nearly every previous civil lawsuit involving Cuba, however, such as the Brothers to the Rescue case, the Cuban government has failed to appear in court. Martinez-Fraga said it doesn’t matter if the government is represented or not. “Cuba has gotten a lot of mileage by claiming that its opposition uses violent means and Cuba uses legal means,” Martinez-Fraga said. “Now we are challenging them within the confines of their very own argument. If you are a nation of laws, you should not fear making public your human rights record.” Since Martinez-Fraga filed the lawsuit against Castro and the Cuban government in April, Saludes has been moved to a prison called Boniato in the province of Oriente, in the eastern part of Cuba, according to Martinez-Fraga. The move, he said, makes it harder for his relatives in northwestern Havana to visit him. Martinez-Fraga has filed an emergency motion with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States, to seek permission for him to visit Saludes.

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