The International Commission of Inquiry was an incredibly powerful and moving series of events across four intense days of activities in London which included two days of the International Commission, a parliamentary meeting, international concert and closing dinner.
The Commission itself heard from over 20 expert witnesses, attorneys and family members of the Five, who gave powerful testimony before an audience of 300 people at the headquarters of the Law Society in the heart of London’s legal district.
The main witness was due to be René González, the first of the Five to be released, who was scheduled to testify in person in London. However at the final hour René received the news that the British Government had denied him a visa to travel to the UK. Despite a series of legal appeals ending up in a high level Judicial Review the British Secretary of State’s Counsel argued that there was no compelling need for René to attend the Commission in person, and the Judge agreed and refused to overturn the Secretary of State’s decision.
Despite this further injustice René was able to give his testimony to the Commission via Skype. The delegates packed into the Grand hall at the Law Society listened attentively, gripped by his compelling evidence presented about the work of the Five, and the arrest, trial and imprisonment.
Three Commissioners presided over all six Commission sessions: Zakeria Mohammed Yacoob, former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Philippe Texier, former Judge, French Court de Cassation and Yogesh Kumar Sabharwal, former Chief Justice of India. They listened to each witness that came to the stage then questioned each in turn to ensure that the full evidence was clearly explained.
Two commission co-ordinators, Professor Sara Chandler, Chair, Human Rights Committee of the Law Society of England and Wales and Elizabeth Woodcraft, Barrister and author, made sure that witnesses and Commissioners had ample opportunity to express their testimony. They ensured that the programme for each day was adhered to and that the complicated series of presentations ran smoothly so that delegates could clearly follow the often complicated series of events surrounding the case.
Phillip Horowitz and Martin Garbus, two of the Cuban Five attorneys gave details of the denial of the Five's rights to a fair trial by the US government. They described the anti Cuban hysteria whipped up in Miami making a fair trial impossible. Garbus presented a 558-page document to the Commissioners outlining the US government's illegal and secret payments to prominent Miami reporters who worked to condemn the Five through their highly prejudicial coverage. Attorney Peter Schey spoke of the US government's refusal to produce vital satellite images of the shoot-down of Brothers to the Rescue planes on February 24 1996. The shoot-down was falsely pinned on Gerardo Hernández and is the reason he is serving a draconian double-life sentence.
Among the others giving testimony were two victims of terrorism against Cuba. Margarita Morales, whose father died in the 1976 terrorist bombing of Cubana flight 455, when 73 people were killed, spoke movingly of her suffering and the pain of all the Cuban victims of the many years of terrorist attacks against the island.
Betina Corcho, whose mother Adriana Corcho, a Cuban diplomat, was murdered by a bomb placed by anti Cuban terrorists in the Cuban Embassy in Portugal in 1976, also gave testimony. Her words brought tears to the eyes of many as she recounted the loss of her mother and the ensuing years of suffering. She recognised the work of the Five who risked their own lives and freedom with their operations in Florida trying to protect the Cuban people against further such atrocities.
The Commission heard testimony from Roberto Hernández Caballero, investigator of terrorist crimes committed against Cuba who gave an overview of the history of aggressions against Cuba that has resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 Cuban citizens over the past 50 years.
One of the most important testimonies was given by Angela Wright, senior researcher at the Americas desk of the International Secretariat at Amnesty International. She was principal author of the 2010 AI report ‘US: The case of the Cuban Five’. Angela explained the position of Amnesty International and the clear case of injustice perpetrated against the Five through the unfair trail and subsequent treatment of the Five and their families.
Family members Adriana Peréz, wife of Gerardo Hernández, Elizabeth Palmeiro, wife of Ramon Labanino, Irmita González, daughter of René González and Mirta Rodriguez, mother of Antonio Guerrero all gave testimony and spoke at different points through the two days. Olga Salanueva, the wife of René González, had been due to travel with René on the Monday before the Commission. But due to her husbands visa denial she was only able to arrive into London on the morning of the second day of the Commission. As she walked into the Commission the hall rose in a spontaneous and uplifting tribute to her and her husbands struggle for liberty and justice, before she too was able to give her personal testimony.
As well as the six Commission sessions there were two special discussion panels. The first heard from former President of the Cuban National Assembly Ricardo Alarcón, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and one of the Vice-Presidents of the European parliament Miguel Angel Martínez. In a wide ranging discussion they spoke of the turbulent relationship between Cuba and the US and the history that ultimately led to the work of the Five and their subsequent arrest and imprisonment. The discussion also looked at the Blockade itself and the impact on the people of Cuba as well as the role of the European Union in helping sustain the anti-Cuba policies.
The second panel coincided with International Women's Day, and featured renowned US author Alice Walker, Irmita González, daughter of René, Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary of UNITE the union, Mirta Rodríguez, mother of Antonio, and Kenia Serrano, President of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples. The campaigning role of women internationally was discussed and the campaign for the Five was seen as one amongst the rich history of women’s struggles for justice and a better world for all.
The Commissioners published their preliminary findings at the end of the Commission, and their full report will is due to be published in the next 6 weeks to be presented to the world’s media and we hope directly to President Obama.
As well as the central events of the Commission hearings there were a number of other important activities.
On the Thursday before the Commission an historic meeting was held at the British parliament hosted by Baroness Angela Smith and Cathy Jamieson MP on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cuba (APPG). The meeting heard from Parliamentarians from Cuba, Britain and six other European countries all of whom were in London to participate in the International Commission itself. The meeting came at the same time as the Judicial review was hearing the application to overturn the visa denial for René González and the meeting made clear its opposition to the Governments cruel denial as well as looking ahead to more concrete working areas to further the demand for justice for the Five.
That same evening a special reception was held at the residence of the Cuban Ambassador to UK HE Esther Armenteros where all the invited guests were able to meet for the first time. A welcome was given by Rob Miller, Director of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign who also updated guests on the developments with the Judicial review into René González’s visa. The reception also heard from Martin Garbus and Jan Fermon, the Belgian lawyer who was overseeing the commission programme and workings.
Voices for Cuba Concert
On Friday night a huge and spectacular concert, Voices for Cuba, took place held at the Barbican Centre in London. Stars of the Buena Vista Social Club Eliades Ochoa and Omara Portuondo had flown into London especially to perform at this unique event for the Five. A packed audience of almost 2,000 people enjoyed a full concert featuring UK based Cuban jazz quintet headed by Omar Puente. As well as the wonderful music the audience heard a special section where 10 famous actors from the UK read from letters and poems from and between the Five and their families. Coordinated by UK actor Andy De la Tour the section included some words from Alice Walker and ended with an emotional speech from daughter of René González, Irmita, who gave moved the audience to tears with her words:
‘My only comfort comes with the hope, that perhaps, very soon, because of the effort from the people and organisations that have made this concert and commission possible, and others sitting here that will join them after tonight. My father will be able to thank you as he asked me to do on his behalf, but personally and most importantly side by side with his four brothers, Ramon, Gerardo, Fernando and Tony.’
A special collection was made on the evening and hundreds of people pledged to get involved with the campaign for the Five. The evening ended with a fabulous and impromptu rendition of the beautiful Cuban anthem ‘Guantanamera’ which saw thousands standing, dancing and singing along as Omara Portuondo sang the words "Volveran" and "They will return" as she left the stage. It was a truly memorable evening.
270 guests attended the closing dinner on Saturday evening held at the headquarters of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC). They heard from the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady who spoke on behalf of the six million affiliated trade unionists and gave her full support for the campaign for the Five and against the ongoing aggressions against Cuba. Other speakers included the General Secretary of Unite the Union, Len Mc Cluskey, former Unite GS Tony Woodley, Rob Miller, CSC Director and of course the families of the Miami Five themselves who thanked the unions, the sponsors and the organisers for the Commission and all the associated events. Special presentations were given to Commission Coorganisers Katrien Demyunck from the Belgian Initiativa Cuba Socialista, Belgian Lawyer Jan Fermon and Dodie Weppler who had played a vital role in the organising of the Commission and the associated events. A special video message from Rene Gonzalez was played at the event and can be viewed here.
The Commission and the associated events were truly inspiring and a huge thanks must be given to everyone who supported these projects at every level and who are too numerous to mention.
We must ensure that the Commission and the ensuing reports are used to drive forward the campaign for justice and liberty for the Five, the remaining prisoners and all the families.