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Sentence Unsure in Cuban-U.S. Trial

November 6, 1997

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ An American charged with plotting against Fidel Castro’s government had a one-day trial Thursday, and as it ended, Cuban prosecutors who had earlier sought the death penalty asked instead for a 20-year prison sentence.

Walter Van der Veer of Miami was arrested in August 1996 for allegedly gathering materials to make Molotov cocktails and plotting to attack police and tourists. He was charged with crimes against state security.

Van der Veer’s American attorneys have denied the charges, saying he was only in Cuba to distribute Bibles, food and toys.

Looking thin and pale, Van der Veer, 52, was whisked early Thursday into the dingy court building near the former Capitol in Havana for the trial, reporters said by telephone from the scene. Reporters were barred from the proceedings.

Dominick Salfi, a Miami attorney who was permitted to observe the trial, told journalists gathered outside the courthouse that prosecutors recommended a 20-year sentence when the trial ended. They had earlier vowed to seek the death penalty, although government officials said privately they doubted Van der Veer would be sentenced to death.

It is now up to the tribunal to weigh the evidence, issue a verdict and set a sentence _ a process that usually takes about five working days.

Salfi, a former judge and prosecutor, was the only member of a U.S. legal team allowed to attend the hearing, but only as an observer; Van der Veer was represented by a court-appointed Cuban government attorney.

Representatives of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and the Cuban Foreign Ministry also attended the proceedings in the multi-storied building in historic downtown.

Cuban officials also claim Van der Veer, who belongs to Commandos L, a militant Cuban exile group, distributed anti-government leaflets during a visit to Havana in February and March 1996 and was carrying a commando knife and U.S. military garb when he was arrested.

``There is no evidence that he has hurt anybody,″ Salfi said before leaving for Cuba on Wednesday. ``There is no evidence he ever had on him any bombs or other devices.″

The head of Van der Veer’s legal team, Ellis Rubin, and his lawyer-son, Guy, were denied visas to travel to Cuba.

Ellis Rubin said he believes he was denied a visa because of his association with Cuban exile groups, including the Comandos L, which has staged coastal raids in Cuba.

Rubin also said that he didn’t believe Van der Veer was mentally competent to stand trial.

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