August 12, 1999

Court Blocks Cuba Victims' Reward

By Patrick Reyna, .c The Associated Press Aug. 12

MIAMI (AP) - Relatives of three men shot down by Cuban jets over international waters can't claim more than $6.2 million owed to Cuba by U.S. telephone companies, a federal appeals court ruled.

The ruling issued Wednesday by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King's decision, which prolonged the disruption of direct phone service between the United States and Cuba.

King ruled March 18 that President Clinton had no authority to waive a new anti-terrorism law allowing the families of three of four fliers killed on Feb. 24, 1996, to be paid using blocked Cuban assets held in the United States.

The appeals court ruled that Cuban telephone company Empresa de Telecommunicaciones de Cuba, S.A., also known as ETECSA, is not a legal stand-in for the Cuban government and can't be fined in lieu of the government.

Four members of the Miami-based group exile group Brothers to the Rescue were searching for Cuban refugees on rafts when Cuban MiGs shot down two planes in the Florida Straits that separate Cuba and the Florida Keys.

Three men - Armando Alejandre, 45; and pilots Carlos Costa, 29, and Mario de la Pena Jr., 24 - were U.S. citizens, making their families eligible to sue under U.S. law.

Two years ago, relatives won a $187 million judgment against Cuba and the Cuban Air Force. The families were unable to collect because of Clinton's waiver and State Department objections.

The $6.2 million King awarded to the families last spring was to have come from payments for long-distance calls from U.S. telephone companies to ETECSA.

The largest payment was to have come from AT&T, more than $4.1 million. MCI International Inc. faced the second largest payment, about $1.05 million.

In February, the Cuban telephone company stopped most direct service to the United States because U.S. phone companies had been withholding payments since December 1998, awaiting King's ruling.

But U.S. carriers then rerouted calls to Cuba, apparently through third countries or onto Sprint telephone lines, which were not affected.

AP-NY-08-12-99 0132EDT

Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.