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Terms of Cuban spy release irritate U.S.-Cuba ties

Children of the Cuban "Colmenita" theatrical troupe perform in Havana
Children of the Cuban "Colmenita" theatrical troupe perform in Havana

By Pascal Fletcher

MIAMI (Reuters) - A convicted Cuban spy who is required to remain on probation in the United States after his scheduled release on Friday may face threats to his safety and should be sent back to the communist island, his lawyer says.

Rene Gonzalez will be the first to be released out of the so-called "Cuban Five" group of jailed agents who were arrested in 1998 and convicted of spying in 2001 in a Miami court.

Their case has been an irritant to already poisoned U.S.-Cuba relations. Havana, which hails the five as heroes, says they were working undercover to stop "terrorist" attacks on Cuba by anti-communist Cuban exiles living in Florida.

After serving 13 years of his 15-year sentence, Gonzalez is due to walk out of a federal prison in Marianna, Florida on Friday, but must serve a three-year term of supervised release, or probation, in the United States, with special conditions.

His lawyer Philip Horowitz said there were concerns for Gonzalez' safety if he stays as ordered in the United States, but a motion to a Florida judge to change the release terms so he can return immediately to Cuba was denied last month.

"His safest place is to be back in Havana," Horowitz told Reuters late on Tuesday, adding Gonzalez' wife and parents were in Cuba and he had no living relatives in the United States.

Gonzalez has dual Cuban-U.S. nationality, and the judge's denial of the motion "ignored his Cuban citizenship", he added. The other four of the five convicted Cuban spies who were deemed to have played larger roles in the operation are still serving out their prison terms in U.S. jails.

Reflecting the animosity felt toward the "Cuban Five" by Cuban exiles, Cuba-born Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen this week called Gonzalez an "enemy of America" and demanded "the most stringent monitoring and safeguards" surrounding his probation period in the United States.

"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," Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said this week.

This recalled U.S. prosecutors' arguments that Gonzalez, as a member of the so-called Cuban espionage "Wasp Network," infiltrated a Cuban exile flying group, Brothers to the Rescue, two of whose planes were shot down by Cuban fighter jets off Cuba in 1996. Four men in the planes were killed.

"The Obama administration needs to take every precaution to protect U.S. security and the American people from this enemy of our nation," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.

CUBA HOLDS U.S. AID CONTRACTOR

"If the U.S. government sees him as a threat, then let him go back to Cuba," is how attorney Horowitz responds to this. He says he is likely to once again appeal for a revision of Gonzalez' supervised release terms, but gave no timeframe.

Cuba's official media and supporters of the "Cuban Five" have angrily protested the requirement that Gonzalez remain on probation for three years in the United States.

In a recent editorial, Cuba's Communist Party newspaper Granma called it a deliberate political reprisal.

"They want Rene (Gonzalez) to stay in the United States, where it's known his life could be at risk, where it's known that the most prominent figures and organizations of anti-Cuban terrorism live," Granma said in a reference to the hardline Cuban exiles the Cuban government denounces as "terrorists".

Cuba's arrest and jailing of a U.S. aid contractor, Alan Gross, accused by Havana of illegally distributing Internet and satellite communications equipment on the island, has added a new dimension to the case of the five Cuban spies.

It has raised speculation that they could be exchanged for Gross, who was sentenced by a Havana court in March to 15 years in prison for crimes against the Cuban state. U.S. officials have so far said this is not being considered however.

In an interview with a Spanish newspaper posted on the Cuban government website Cubadebate, Gonzalez' wife Olga Salanueva -- whom U.S. prosecutors say was a Cuban intelligence operative who was arrested and deported back to Cuba in 2000 -- indicated she saw it unlikely that Gonzalez would be released from his U.S. probation in exchange for Gross' release.

"There's no comparison between Rene, who's completed his sentence, and Gross, who's only spent a year and a half in prison," Salanueva said, cited by Cubadebate. She said her husband would be in danger remaining in the United States.

In a separate interview also carried by Cubadebate, Gonzalez' brother Roberto revealed that his brother, a pilot who had previously served with Cuba's armed forces in Angola, flew to the United States from Cuba in 1990 in a crop-dusting plane in an apparent defection. Only later, at his arrest in 1998, did it emerge he was working for Cuban intelligence. Gonzalez has U.S. citizenship because he was born in the United States in 1956 but returned with his family to Cuba in 1961.

(Reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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