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Pressure boils in Cuban camps. Afraid to return home but unwanted in US, Cuban detainees are stuck in a frustrating legal limbo

Rioting Cuban detainees have made clear that, at least for many of them, one thing is worse than the months and years of waiting in detention: going back to Cuba. Several thousand Cuban detainees - most of them held in an old Atlanta penitentiary and a detention camp in Oakdale, La. - have been caught for years in a bind of international politics.

Refugees from the 1980 boatlift from Mariel, Cuba, they have been excluded from the United States as undesirables for crimes in the US ranging from shoplifting to murder. But Cuba, from the spring of 1985 until now, has been unwilling to take them back. So the Cubans have been waiting in a legal limbo, under no criminal charges and without constitutional rights.

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As of Friday, Cuba has once again agreed to accept more than 2,500 of the detainees back, while allowing up to 27,000 other Cubans a year emigrate to the US.

On Saturday, the Cubans at Oakdale set fires, took over the camp, and seized 25 members of the staff as hostages. On Sunday, 17 Cubans escaped from a Laredo, Texas, detention center to avoid deportation. (All but one were recaptured within a day.) On Monday, the Cubans in Atlanta set fires and took over a portion of the prison.

At the heart of the rebellion is uncertainty and fear over who is going to be deported - as well as what would happen to detainees upon their return to Cuba. Most of the 125,000 in the 1980 boatlift were given special immigration status and have applied for US citizenship.

An original 1984 agreement between the US and Cuba named 2,746 Cubans to be deported. Only 201 made the trip before Cuban President Fidel Castro suspended the agreement in anger over the start-up of Radio Mart'i, a US broadcast service aimed at Cuba.

The US Immigration and Naturalization Service has not made it clear whether deportations will resume using the same list of names, or whether a different group will be deported. Immigration lawyers believe that many of the Cubans on the original list have now been released - no longer deemed a threat to US society. Altogether, the INS has about 3,800 Cuban ``excludables'' in custody, with a couple of thousand more serving sentences in US jails and prisons.

Oakdale housed many of the 570 detainees that have already been approved by the INS for release either directly into the community or through halfway houses. Expectations were running high in Oakdale for early release.

``I think they panicked,'' says Robert Cullen, an Atlanta lawyer with detainee clients. ``After a long detention, they were looking at getting out in a fairly short time. They feel they were sold out.''

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Desperation has been running high among the Cuban detainees for years. Conditions have improved somewhat recently in the Atlanta Penitentiary, but it remains one of the worst in the country. Since Cubans began arriving there in 1980, a dozen have been murdered, nine have committed suicide, and more than 200 suicide attempts have been thwarted by prison officials. A year-long lockdown in 1984 resulted in a prison riot then.

Since then, men who had already finished serving sentences for possessing guns or cocaine asked desperately after any news indicating how long their ordeal would last. Some wives, children, and even fianc'ees moved to Atlanta to be near them. Others made regular 700-mile trips up from Miami.

The Oakdale center has different problems. Its location has been controversial for its remoteness. ``The sheer isolation and size of the Oakdale facility makes it almost impossible for the great bulk of people there to have representation,'' says Catherine Lampard, a lawyer and director of Ecumenical Legal Services in New Orleans - 4 hours from Oakdale. ``That may have been a contributing factor [to the riot], because that kind of assistance, having that attorney or someone there to consult with, acts as something of a safety valve for frustrations.''

The Cubans are clearly more afraid of Cuban prisons than American prisons. ``It does sound funny to a lot of people that indefinite detention would be better than going back,'' says Sally Sandidge, who works with Cuban detainees and their families. But after President Castro has publicly vilified them for seven years as criminals and betrayers of the Cuban revolution, they are afraid for their safety there, she says.

Their concerns are not entirely unwarranted. Last year, reporters for the Atlanta Constitution sought out the 201 Marielitos who had been deported. At least 73 were in Cuban prisons. Cuban officials said they were completing sentences for American crimes, but US officials noted that all of them had completed their sentences before leaving the US.

``Families are very upset,'' says Atlanta Legal Aid lawyer Gary Leshaw. ``Obviously they're concerned that husbands, fathers, other loved ones may be deported.... Some are worried they may never see each other again.''

Says another immigration lawyer: ``All this rioting may have been avoided by letting people know who was and who wasn't going to be deported.''

Staff writer Howard LaFranchi contributed to this report.

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