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Role in trial gets Cubans past immigration rules

Published July 21, 2006

MIAMI - In an unusual move, 28 Cuban migrants were brought to U.S. soil so they can serve as witnesses in a criminal case against the men accused of organizing their smuggling voyage. The decision, announced Thursday, also means the migrants can stay in the United States.

U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the "unique circumstances" of the case led prosecutors to bring the group ashore under material witness warrants, which could require them to testify before a grand jury or trial jury.

"Smugglers often treat migrants as if they were human cargo," Acosta said. "This must stop."

The 28 were brought to Key West early Wednesday after being detained aboard a Coast Guard cutter at sea since the July 8 chase of the alleged smuggling boat, which resulted in the death of a Cuban woman. They were brought to Miami early Thursday, officials said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lurana Snow agreed Thursday to allow their release to relatives in Miami who guarantee they will pay $25,000 per person who fails to appear in court when required.

When Snow announced her decision, several migrants in the courtroom wiped away tears.

Outside court, Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Cuban exile group Democracy Movement, witnessed migrants' reunions with relatives. "It was very emotional. They were very happy, screaming and yelling," he said.

Three men are being held without bail on smuggling charges and could face possible life sentences. Their speedboat, containing 31 migrants, was intercepted by the Coast Guard about 4 miles south of Boca Chica in the Florida Keys. One migrant, Anei Machado Gonzalez, 24, died after hitting her head when the boat ignored orders to stop and tried to ram a Coast Guard vessel, authorities said. The Coast Guard fired two shots into the vessel's engine to disable it.

Omar Alberti, 40, whose 25-year-old cousin Miguel Alberti was on the boat, does not think the men should be tried for the woman's death. "The Coast Guard is responsible. They should let them go," he said.

Two migrants aboard the speedboat, one a pregnant woman and the other a man who was ill, were previously brought to U.S. soil, officials said, and are not subject at this time to material witness warrants.

Under the U.S. "wet foot-dry foot" policy, most Cubans who reach U.S. soil are permitted to remain, while those intercepted at sea are returned home. After a year, migrants are eligible to become permanent legal residents.

The Bush administration has made other recent exceptions to the policy. It allowed the parents of a 6-year-old Cuban boy who died during a smuggling attempt in October to enter the country. But it is unusual for an entire group to be brought ashore to provide evidence in a criminal smuggling case.

"I condemn smuggling, because it endangers the lives of people," said Sanchez, of the exile group. "It creates a mafia, and it endangers the lives of authorities also."

[Last modified July 21, 2006, 05:37:25]

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