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The Cuban-American Bar Association plans to send financial aid to the family of imprisoned Cuban dissident Oscar Elias Biscet and possibly other political prisoners jailed since a crackdown against opposition groups on the island. The move is part of a larger plan hatched by CABA following the mass arrests and convictions of Cuban dissidents by the Fidel Castro regime in March and April. CABA is seeking to ratchet up pressure on the Castro government and keep a spotlight on the fate of the prisoners who were sentenced to terms of six to 28 years after summary trials and convictions. The Miami-based lawyer group also is asking other legal and human rights groups to publicly condemn Castro’s crackdown on political opponents and to pressure the Cuban leader to release the prisoners. Last month, it filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., against Cuba on behalf of 74 of the 75 dissidents. (The other dissident, Omar Rodriguez Saludes, had a petition filed on his behalf in April.) The petition seeks the release of the prisoners. CABA has not previously sought to provide economic support to dissidents in Cuba or to take any other direct action against the Castro regime. The group was founded in 1974 to help Cuban-American lawyers advance in the legal profession. It currently has about 2,000 members. Some South Florida attorneys and organizations hailed CABA’s anti-Castro efforts. Dade County Bar Association president John H. Hickey said his organization is not only supportive of CABA’s effort but is seeking to independently take action condemning the dissident crackdown. “We’re certainly in the fight with CABA,” said Hickey, a Miami solo practitioner. “I wish more groups like them would do this,” said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. But some Cuban-American attorneys are critical of CABA. Lawyer Jesus Sanchelima, who left Cuba in 1960 when he was 11, cautioned that CABA’s effort to send financial support to a Cuban dissident could be harmful to the recipient. “It makes them more a target by the [Cuban] government,” said Sanchelima, a Miami solo practitioner who is secretary of the U.S.-Cuba Legal Forum, a group that seeks to foster dialogue between U.S. and Cuban lawyers. “It is good that [CABA] files a petition. But sending money down there is very dangerous and may compromise people.” CABA plans to send the maximum allowed by U.S. law to be received by each household in Cuba — $300 every three months and a total of $1,200 each year. While that may not seem like a lot by American standards, “to put it into perspective, a medical doctor at the University of Havana makes U.S. $30 a month,” said Ramon A. Abadin, president-elect of CABA. CABA selected Biscet as an aid recipient because “he is one of the most renowned dissidents in Cuba,” said Antonio C. Castro, a CABA board member and partner at Boies Schiller & Flexner in Miami. “After he was incarcerated for several years, one of the first things he did when he was released was denounce the deplorable conditions in the Cuban prisons. The guy is unbreakable.” Biscet was released in February after serving a three-year sentence for such charges as “insulting symbols of the fatherland” and “public disorder.” A month after his release, Biscet was arrested as part of the crackdown and sentenced to 25 years in prison. CABA president Victor M. Diaz Jr., a partner at Podhurst Orseck Josefsberg Eaton Meadow Olin & Perwin in Miami, said the aid money would come from attorneys who sit on the board of directors, as well as from members of the group. “We may undertake the support of other cases and individuals in the future,” he said. The Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C., did not return calls for comment. In March, while the world’s attention was focused on U.S. preparations for invading Iraq, the Castro regime rounded up human rights activists, journalists and academics on the grounds that they were conspiring with U.S. diplomats to undermine the Cuban government. Following closed trials, the government in April also executed three men who were convicted of hijacking a Havana ferry in hopes of sailing to Florida. Four other men involved in the hijacking were sentenced to life in prison. The arrests, trials and sentences by the Cuban government were widely criticized around the world as being done without due process. The crackdown heightened the long-simmering tensions between the U.S. and Cuba. After the dissidents were jailed, CABA convened an emergency meeting of its 15-member board of directors in April. It developed a four-point plan that has been carried out in the intervening months. In August, the group persuaded the American Bar Association to write a letter to Fidel Castro condemning the convictions and lengthy sentences imposed on the dissidents as violations of international law. In September, it filed its petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In addition, it mailed letters to 200 bar and human rights organizations across the country asking that they condemn Castro’s crackdown and file an amicus brief with the Inter-American Commission. So far, less than 10 of the 200 organizations contacted have responded. Among the bar organizations that have responded are Pennsylvania and New York, according to Roland Sanchez-Medina Jr., a CABA board member who co-led the outreach effort. “They have responded by saying we are taking it into consideration and will let us know about taking the next step,” Sanchez-Medina, a partner at Sanchez-Medina & Associates in Coral Gables. “New York asked about the particulars of filing an amicus with the Inter-American Commission.” The Florida Bar declined to participate. In an Oct. 16 letter to Diaz, Bar president Miles A. McGrane III wrote that his organization is prohibited by law from engaging in “partisan advocacy” because it’s an official, regulatory arm of the Florida Supreme Court and all Florida attorneys are required to be members. He encouraged CABA to seek support from voluntary bar groups. The Dade County Bar Association’s Hickey said he plans to write a strongly worded letter to Castro on behalf of his group, along with a column in the bar newsletter hailing the work of Nobel Peace Prize nominee Oswaldo Paya. Paya, a Cuban dissident who has not been jailed, heads the Varela Project. It seeks a voter referendum on the Cuban government. “I see the Varela Project as something akin to the French resistance in World War II,” Hickey said. Greenberg Traurig chief executive Cesar Alvarez, who was among CABA’s founders, expressed strong support for the bar group’s new anti-Castro push. “To now see CABA getting involved in some of these other issues that are important to us as Cuban-Americans — particularly when they relate to issues like freedom of the press and freedom of religion which the legal profession is so often called upon to defend — I am delighted,” he said. But Miami attorney Antonio R. Zamora, who was a founder of both CABA and the Cuban American National Foundation, criticized CABA’s effort as ineffectual and counterproductive. Zamora, of counsel at Hughes Hubbard & Reed in Miami, also helped found the U.S.-Cuba Legal Forum. “It may be nice and symbolic for politics in Miami, but it really does not have any effect here,” said Zamora, who was reached at the Hotel Melia in Havana where he is researching an article on real estate law. “It is counterproductive for us to try and influence events here, especially in a confrontational manner.” Zamora, who participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 and was jailed by the Cuban government for 20 months before being released to the United States, said he favors engaging the Cuban bar and authorities to try to resolve the issues through “constructive engagement.” But the U.S. government earlier this year denied a license to Zamora’s U.S.-Cuba Legal Forum to hold its annual conference for American and Cuban lawyers in Havana. Diaz criticized what he called the silence of Zamora and other U.S.-Cuba Legal Forum participants in the wake of Castro’s crackdown on political opponents. “To remain silent is not an option,” he said. “To motivate and mobilize public opinion against the oppression of human rights is never counterproductive. It is in best tradition of how lawyers have responded to human rights violations through history in places like South Africa, Eastern Europe, Chile and Argentina.”

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