By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - A Cuban intelligence agent was released from prison in Arizona after serving more than 15 years for spying on Cuban-American exiles in Miami, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said on Thursday.
Fernando Gonzalez, 50, will be deported to Cuba as soon as possible, his lawyers and U.S. officials say.
Gonzalez was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1998 along with four other Cuban agents and they were all convicted in 2001 of 26 counts of spying on behalf of Fidel Castro's government.
The case of the "Cuban Five" is widely considered an impediment to improving tense relations between the United States and Cuba, separated by only 90 miles of sea.
"Every step has been taken to remove any procedural delays, and Fernando looks forward to returning to his family," Gonzalez's attorney Richard Klugh said in an email.
The group, called La Red Avispa or the Wasp Network, infiltrated Miami-based activist group Brothers to the Rescue and attempted to spy on U.S. military installations, relaying coded messages back to Havana, albeit with little success.
The agents are considered national heroes by Cubans who argue they were unjustly convicted and were mainly collecting information on exile groups suspected of planning guerrilla actions against the island.
Gonzalez, who also goes by the name Ruben Campa, was given a 19-year sentence, which was reduced on appeal in 2008 for good behavior.
Gonzalez was released from Safford correctional institution in southern Arizona at about 4 a.m. EST (0900 GMT), according to Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke.
Gonzalez was turned over to the custody of immigration officials for deportation, details of which were not made public "for safety and security reasons," said Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswman Barbara Gonzalez.
Another agent, Rene Gonzalez, was released in 2011 and returned to Cuba after serving more than 13 years in a U.S. prison. He renounced his U.S. citizenship to avoid serving the mandatory three-year parole in Florida.
One of the three remaining agents, Gerardo Hernandez, is serving a double life sentence for his involvement in shooting down two small U.S. planes off the Cuba coast in 1996.
Four people on board the planes were killed. The planes were on a mission for Brothers to the Rescue, searching for Cubans trying to cross the Florida Straits in flimsy home-made rafts. Cuba accused the planes of violating its air space.
The sentences of two other agents have also been reduced. Antonio Guerrero, serving 21 years and 10 months, is due for release in September 2017, while Ramon Labanino, serving 30 years, is due to be released in October 2024.
The agents' case exacerbated already hostile U.S.-Cuba relations and gained greater attention after the arrest in Havana of U.S. contractor Alan Gross in 2009. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in jail for what Cuba said was his role in a U.S. government effort to set up an underground Internet network on the Caribbean island.
The U.S. has demanded that Gross be freed, while Cuba has hinted it might consider a deal to release him - if Washington will free the remaining members of the Cuban Five in exchange.
The Obama administration has repeatedly said it will not consider an exchange.
(Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix and David Adams in Miami; Editing by Ken Wills, Andrew Hay and Gunna Dickson)