Lawyer for jailed American in Cuba also advocates case of Cuban spies
jailed in the U.S.
Attorney for American on trial in Cuba Friday has a connection to five
spies jailed in the U.S.
By Frances Robles
An American government contractor whose family and government contend is
being unjustly held behind bars in Cuba goes on trial Friday.
His defense attorney: Nuris Piñero Sierra, who also represents the
families of five Cuban intelligence agents who Havana says are being
unjustly held in U.S. federal prisons.
"What a coincidence!" said Wilfredo Vallín, president of an opposition
lawyers association in Cuba.
The selection of Piñero to defend American Alan Gross has raised
eyebrows among Cuba-watchers, who suspect the veteran attorney was
chosen to strategically place her where she could play a key role as an
intermediary brokering a prisoner swap for her other clients. Experts in
the Cuban legal field say the world-traveled lawyer will nonetheless do
her best to defend the 61-year-old ailing American — who stands little
chance of getting a fair trial on charges of acting against the state.
"Having her as Mr. Gross' defense attorney is significant," Vallín said.
"She will defend him without limit — guaranteed. They have to at least
give the appearance of giving him a fair hearing."
Gross was a subcontractor for Maryland-based Development Alternatives
Inc., which had a U.S. Agency for International Development contract to
promote democracy and communications on the island. The U.S. government
has said Gross had gone to Cuba to help bring the Internet to Jewish
He was allegedly caught with satellite phones, and Jewish community
leaders in Havana told The Associated Press they never heard of him.
Another leader told CBS News this week that he met Gross a few times,
but already had web access and didn't need his help.
Prosecutors recently announced they are seeking a 20-year sentence
against Gross for crimes against the integrity of the state. His wife,
Judy Gross, hired lawyers in both Washington and Havana.
"The intent has to be — and I don't blame her — of trying to make some
kind of swap," said Cuba specialist Andy Gomez, a vice provost at the
University of Miami. "It's the only angle to explain why Alan Gross'
wife would want this."
The U.S. government has said emphatically that Gross will not be traded
for any of the so-called "Cuban Five," Cuban intelligence agents
arrested more than a decade ago and convicted of spying. Heroes at home,
the men infiltrated exile community groups and tried to snoop on
An unending media campaign in Cuba and the United States was launched on
their behalf. Piñero was often the spokeswoman for the spies' relatives
in Cuba, several of whom were denied U.S. visas to visit their jailed
family members. She has appeared on Cuba's government TV news program
Round Table, and is often quoted in the state media blasting the
American legal system.
She's known as an accomplished administrator and public face of the Cuba
legal team. Piñero appears to be working hard and visits her client
regularly, Judy Gross told The Miami Herald in November.
Paul McKenna, attorney for convicted spy Gerardo Hernández, insisted
that Piñero is an excellent attorney who will put on the best defense,
no matter the political overtones.
"She's not a commie robot who's going to screw an American because
somebody told her to do it," McKenna said. "She has integrity, as hard
as that is for people in Miami to believe. I don't vouch for Cuba's
legal system. I vouch for her."
McKenna said he spent "hundreds of hours" with Piñero during the more
than a dozen trips he took to prepare his case a decade ago. A warm,
funny grandmother, she wasn't afraid to butt heads with authorities who
put up bureaucratic obstacles. Her cases ranged from complicated
contracts to probate and criminal defense, he said.
She lives in a comfortable home in Havana's Marianao suburb, near the
famed Tropicana nightclub, McKenna said.
"The one good thing you could say about Alan Gross' situation is the
lawyer he has," McKenna said. "She's a lawyer's lawyer."
Foreigners in legal trouble in Cuba are required to pick a defense
lawyer from the Guild of Specialized Legal Services, a government
cooperative that handles international cases. For years, Piñero has run
that cooperative, which has several dozen attorneys.
The family's D.C. attorney, Peter Kahn, declined to comment for this
report. Through a family spokeswoman, Judy Gross issued a statement
saying she was anxious for her husband's return, but she did not address
the questions relating to how she chose Piñero.
"I am increasingly worried about the impact the incredible emotional
pain and stress he is enduring will ultimately have on Alan's own
health," she wrote.
Piñero did not return messages left by telephone and email.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said consular officials provide jailed
Americans with a list of local attorneys but do not make recommendations.
In court, defense attorneys in Cuba are allowed to present witnesses,
who testify before a panel that includes a judge and two civilians.
Trials usually last no more than two days and are open to the public,
but political cases are sometimes closed to the media.
"The two civilians will be two old geezers who are asleep," said Juan
Ignacio Hernández Nodar, a Cuban-American baseball agent who stood trial
in 1996 for "inciting" players to defect. "After holding me for two and
a half months, they came to me one day and said I would have a trial in
two days. On Sunday, they gave me a brand new uniform, and on Monday I
testified for four hours. A month later, they told me I'd been sentenced
to 15 years."
He was freed in October 2009.
"The whole thing is a circus," said Hernández, who now lives in the
Dominican Republic. He acknowledged that his attorney — who worked at
Piñero's collective — worked hard for him.
"She's going to fight like the devil for him," Hernández said. "He'll
get a high sentence anyway, because that's already been decided by
somebody else, and she will use that to pressure the United States to
trade him. This is a person who is super-committed to the Cuban state.
If she's defending the 'five compatriots,' what kind of power must she
have with the Cuban government? They don't give that job to just anybody."
Camilo Loret de Mola, who represented Hernández in the 1996 trial, said
he doubts Piñero will litigate the case herself. She's more likely to
contact the family and consular officials, visit Gross in jail and give
press conferences, he said.
"She coordinates, organizes, makes decisions, bills the clients and
hands money over to the government," said Loret de Mola, who defected
seven years ago. "She's not a litigator. She can't be his attorney. It
doesn't make sense."
He agreed with other experts who said the lawyer will put on a good defense.
"They know it will be pointless and fall on deaf ears anyway," he said.