The Justice Department yesterday unveiled a review process to determine whether 7,600 imprisoned Cubans should be released or returned to Cuba, but lawyers for the Cubans said the plan, while an improvement, falls short of the "full, fair and equitable" review promised by Attorney General Edwin Meese III.
The procedure, affecting Cubans who arrived in the United States in the 1980 Mariel boatlifts, was in response to riots at prisons holding hundreds of Cubans in Oakdale, La., and Atlanta. Those rampages were sparked by announcement that Cuba had agreed to reinstate a 1984 agreement that would permit the deportation of 2,500 Marielitos who have been deemed ineligible to remain in the United States.
The procedure adds a new layer of review by Justice Department officials, excluding the Immigration and Naturalization Service from making the final decision on the Cubans' fates.
"The programs we have developed with respect to parole and repatriation embody fairness and, I believe, will achieve it," Deputy Attorney General Arnold I. Burns told reporters.
Burns described the plan as "an effort to keep the attorney general's commitment . . . 1,000 percent that each and every one of these people will receive an individualized, fair review."
But attorneys representing the Cubans complained that the plan does not provide for hearings at which the Cubans can present their cases or cross-examine government witnesses and does not guarantee that lawyers will be appointed to represent them.
"I'm disappointed in the outcome. I think there are some serious inadequacies," said Gary Leshaw, an Atlanta lawyer who was allowed to advise Cuban detainees holding 94 hostages at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary during an 11-day siege.
A Justice Department official said yesterday that initial review of cases suggests authorities will eventually decide to send back fewer than the maximum allowed. "Our numbers show they're not approaching 2,500," the official said.
Under the plan announced yesterday, a "Special Review Panel for Mariel Cubans," composed of three members designated by the associate attorney general, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, and the director of the Community Relations Service, will examine the cases of any Cubans that the INS recommends deporting. These would generally be classified as hard-core criminals.
On the separate question of whether the imprisoned Cubans should be released, the INS will first review the cases of all the detained Cubans, including those who had already been turned down for parole and those who had been approved for release, to review their conduct since that decision and the riots.
If the INS decides the Cubans should not be paroled, another three-member "Departmental Release Review Panel," including at least one lawyer and one representative of the Community Relations Service, will review that ruling.
Burns said "some hard, tough eggs . . . will be put on the track for repatriation to Cuba." In most cases, he said, Cubans found eligible for parole would not be sent back.
About 7,600 Mariel Cubans are being held in federal and state facilities, many of whom have already served sentences for crimes they committed after arriving here but who are being detained indefinitely because they have been deemed "excludable" from the United States, and Cuba would not accept them.
Cubans may submit written statements to the Justice Department review panels and have the right to hire lawyers. In addition, the panels have authority to interview the Cubans if they choose.
The process is similar for the Cubans subject to deportation.
Leshaw criticized the plan for providing only "a paper review. There is no provision for any kind of meaningful due-process hearing . . . . The point of all this was to give full, fair and equitable review. That connotes somebody having a fair chance to present his case. The lack of a hearing may prevent that in many instances."
However, he praised the plan for adding a layer of review above the INS. The "INS has proven itself incapable of dealing with this over the years," he said.