Sunday, August 10, 2008

Judge Rules for 3 Cubans in Slave Case

The men say they were forced by government to work in shipyard.
Friday, August 8, 2008 at 7:50 p.m.

MIAMI | A federal judge ruled Friday in favor of three Cuban men who claimed in a lawsuit that the communist Castro government forced them to work as virtual slaves at a shipyard on the island of Curacao.

Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King determined that the Curacao Drydock Co. failed to meet several court-imposed deadlines and essentially walked away from the case. King found in favor of the Cubans by default, leaving only the issue of damages to be decided. "The court finds the defendant has abandoned the case by disobeying the court's orders," King wrote in his decision.

The three Cuban men, all now living in the U.S. - Alberto Justo Rodriguez Licea, Fernando Alonso Hernandez and Luis Alberto Casanova Toledo - claimed in the 2006 lawsuit that Cuba forced them and others to work for the Curacao shipyard to repay a Cuban debt.

They said they were victims of a conspiracy in which Cuba provided low-cost, forced labor in return for hard currency desperately sought by the communist Havana government.

They said they worked long hours in hellish conditions, had their passports confiscated and were forced to watch endless videos of then-Cuban President Fidel Castro's speeches.

The three eventually escaped and were permitted to remain in the U.S., where Cubans generally are allowed to stay if they reach dry land.

The Curacao shipyard admitted many of the allegations in court documents but sought to get the case dismissed on jurisdictional grounds or have it moved to Curacao, a self-governing Dutch island in the Lesser Antilles off Venezuela's coast.

When those efforts failed, the shipyard gave up and dismissed its U.S. legal team. It currently has no U.S. lawyers.

"There are undisputed facts of how this absurd forced labor business was run," said Seth Miles, another lawyer for the Cuban men.

The issue of how much the three Cuban men are due in damages will be decided at a trial set for Nov. 17. Lawyers for the three said Friday their damages request from the shipyard would run well into the millions of dollars.

"They are either going to pay these three men what they owe them, or they are going to have a difficult if not impossible time doing business in the United States. We'll make sure of that," said lawyer John Andres Thornton.

Cuba's government, now run by Fidel Castro's brother Raul Castro, was not part of the case and has never responded to the slavery allegations. But Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the nonprofit Cuba Study Group, said the case highlights a common Cuban practice of sending citizens to work in other countries as forced laborers.

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