Monday, April 11, 2011

Cuban Prisoner Released, With Pro Bono Help From 2 U.S. Firms

Six years of "back channel work" by lawyers from Sidley Austin and Hogan Lovells finally paid off earlier this month, when the Cuban government released human rights activist Oscar Biscet from prison after more than eight years behind bars, often in solitary confinement. "We were delirious with joy when we got the call from Oscar's wife," said Sidley Washington partner Andrew Strenio Jr. "It was a labor of love." Strenio credits Sidley associate Lauren Buckley and Hogan Lovells Washington partner Jeremy Zucker for much of the pro bono behind-the-scenes work they all did to help win Biscet's release. Biscet, a medical doctor who has been likened to South Africa's Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned for his nonviolent human rights work in Cuba. Supporters also said the Afro-Cuban doctor was the victim of Cuban racism. Biscet was one of 75 dissidents arrested in 2002. Most of those have been released in recent years, but Biscet's freedom was delayed in part because he wanted to remain in Cuba to continue his advocacy. "Some of the dissidents accepted exile as a condition of their release, but Oscar refuses to leave Cuba," said Strenio. "He is intent on continuing his work." Asked what the lawyers did to win Biscet's release, Strenio said it involved "quite delicate work" that he did not want to describe fully. But much of it was "back channel" communications aimed at making it clear to Cuba that Biscet's release was important to a wide range of government, civil and religious groups. "His eloquence and the force of his personality won him admirers around the world," said Strenio. Biscet has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2007, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in absentia. Last year, Strenio said, feedback began to turn positive about Biscet's possible release, so when the call came from Biscet's wife about his March 11 release, it was not entirely a surprise. Strenio said Biscet has since spoken with the lawyers who helped him, thanking them profusely. "The chance to be of help to him was such an honor that we were thanking him," said Strenio, an antitrust expert and former Federal Trade Commission member. The 49-year-old Biscet is "doing remarkably well," given his long confinement, said Strenio, who hopes to meet Biscet some day. Carter Phillips, Sidley's D.C. managing director, said in a statement, "Sidley is deeply honored to have been part of this inspiring struggle to free Dr. Biscet, and we are grateful that our efforts on his behalf have succeeded. Dr. Biscet's release represents a victory for the rule of law and demonstrates the important role that pro bono lawyers can play even on matters beyond our nation's borders."

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