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Suit seeks to free detained Cubans

Some of Miami's most influential Cuban-American lawyers filed suit Monday against the Clinton administration, charging it with illegally detaining 30,000 Cuban refugees at U.S. military bases in Guantanamo and Panama.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami by the Cuban-American Bar Association and two related groups, seeks to grant the refugees access to attorneys and a chance to apply for refugee status and political asylum in the United States. It charges that the federal government is coercing the refugees to return to Fidel Castro's Cuba, where they allegedly would face harassment and imprisonment.

Federal officials had no immediate comment on the suit.

The lawsuit comes just two weeks before the Nov. 8 election, which pits a surging Republican Jeb Bush against incumbent Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, whose political ads tout his tough stand against the Cuban influx. Many political analysts in Florida consider Chiles' opposition to increased immigration one of his strongest campaign points.

During the summer, when thousands of desperate Cubans took to the Florida Straits in flimsy rafts, many Cuban-American leaders joined with Chiles to plead with the administration to stop a repeat of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought 125,000 Cubans to South Florida, overwhelming local schools and social services and sparking a related crime wave. The administration responded by opening camps at Guantanamo, and eventually in Panama, denying the Cubans access to the United States.

Some 7,430 Haitians _ among the 15,000 or so who fled their homeland by boat before the U.S. occupation _ also remain at Guantanamo.

Federal officials have insisted that no Cuban interdicted at sea will be allowed into the United States _ a reversal of almost 35 years of preferential treatment toward those fleeing Castro's communist government.

Lawyer Jose Garcia-Pedrosa called the conditions at the safe havens in Guantanamo revolting and appalling and argued that Cubans detained at the naval base should be allowed to apply for asylum, just as Cubans can do in Havana.

For weeks, Cuban-American leaders and White House and State Department officials have been meeting in an attempt to settle the issue quietly. But 10 days ago in a meeting with White House counsel, the Cuban-Americans were told that nothing would be resolved before the Nov. 8 election, according to participants at the meeting.

There are now 23,699 Cubans in Guantanamo and 8,206 in Panama. Most live in spartan tent cities surrounded by razor-sharp concertina wire.

Attorneys for the Cuban rafters said their lawsuit sought to allow the Cubans access to legal representation and improved medical care. But most importantly, the lawyers argued, international and constitutional law, as well as 35 years of U.S. policy, should permit Cubans at Guantanamo to make asylum claims.

"For 35 years, the U.S. government has been encouraging Cubans to come here," said lawyer Robert Boyer. "Now they're not?"