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Immigration Charges Dropped Against Cuban Exile Suspected of Bombing

May 9, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Thousands gathered in Havana in October 1976 to mourn 73 dead, all victims of the Cubana airline bombing.

Cuban President Fidel Castro blamed the United States and accused Cuban-born Luis Posada Carriles of masterminding the attack. Castro also alleges Posada, a former CIA operative and fierce Castro opponent, was behind a string of Havana hotel bombings in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist.

The 79-year old Posada is also wanted in Venezuela. He escaped from prison there while awaiting a second trial for the airliner bombing. He’s a naturalized Venezuelan citizen.

Posada has repeatedly denied any connections with the 1976 bombing.

LUIS POSADA CARRILES, Former CIA Operative (through translator): The act of the downing of that airplane is an act in which I did not have any participation. I want to repeat again that I condemn that act as an abominable act, and I had nothing to do with it.

RAY SUAREZ: He was arrested in May 2005 after sneaking into the United States from Mexico, after he completed a prison sentence in Panama for a plot to kill Castro. Posada was charged with immigration fraud, not acts of terrorism, and that sparked protests across Cuba.

Last month, he was released on bail. Yesterday, a federal judge in Texas threw out the immigration charges against him.

For weeks, Cubans protested against Posada’s release. His picture is plastered on billboards alongside President Bush, labeling him an assassin. Posada was also attacked in the Cuban media, for example, on this TV talk show by the editor of a Cuban newspaper.

ROGELIO POLANCO FUENTES, “Juventud Rebelde” (through translator): … the government of the United States, the Bush administration and its cronies, have not prosecuted Posada Carriles as what he is: a terrorist.

A flawed naturalization application

Jay Weaver
The Miami Herald
[Carriles] is a free man for now, but the Justice Department could appeal the decision by the judge, or there also could be a detainer put on him by immigration authorities.

RAY SUAREZ: Posada is now on his way to Miami, where his wife lives.

For more, we go to Jay Weaver, a reporter for the Miami Herald, who has been covering the Luis Posada Carriles story since 2005.

Jay, welcome. On what grounds did the federal judge throw out the action against Posada?

JAY WEAVER, the Miami Herald: Well, a federal judge in El Paso, Texas, found that Mr. Posada's naturalization application was flawed, and the reason why it was flawed, she determined, is because an interpreter had botched a lot of the questions and answers during the interview process last year with U.S. authorities.

Why is that relevant? Well, it became relevant because the entire immigration fraud case against Mr. Posada was based on the fact that he had lied to immigration authorities about how he sneaked into the country in 2005 from Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: So is he now a completely free man?

JAY WEAVER: Well, that's the $64,000 question. He is. He is a free man for now, but the Justice Department could appeal the decision by the judge, or there also could be a detainer put on him by immigration authorities. They could continue to hold him.

He could fight that through a habeas corpus petition, which he has done before, but which was never resolved. And at the same time, the Justice Department could designate him as a terrorist.

Lastly, there's another legal front that could be more problematic than all of the above, and that is that a Newark, New Jersey, grand jury is investigating whether or not he was the mastermind of a bombing campaign in Havana of tourist hotels in 1997 where an Italian was killed.

Changing his story

Jay Weaver
The Miami Herald
[Carriles] has changed his story. He originally, after the attacks, gave an interview to the New York Times in which he pretty much confirmed that, you know, he was responsible for those attacks at the hotel sites in Havana in 1997.

RAY SUAREZ: Has he over the years changed his stories or are there multiple stories about his involvement or knowledge of those '90s attacks in Havana?

JAY WEAVER: Well, he has changed his story. He originally, after the attacks, gave an interview to the New York Times in which he pretty much confirmed that, you know, he was responsible for those attacks at the hotel sites in Havana in 1997.

But then later during, you know, his immigration questioning in an immigration court, you know, he indicated to a judge that he had been misunderstood and that he had not understood the questions well or conveyed his answers well, and that he indeed, you know, wasn't responsible for them. So there's been some equivocation on his part in later years.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the United States been assisting the Cubans in investigating those bombings?

JAY WEAVER: Well, it's sort of a combination of factors. In the fall of last year, the FBI in Miami sent a team of agents to Havana. And, of course, they did so with the permission of the Cuban government. And it was not unprecedented, though uncommon.

And in doing so, they were able to gather information from defense witnesses and defendants, forensic evidence, bombing remnants, evidence they'd never been able to gather before since 2000, when the Cuban government had pretty much shut them down, in terms of pursuing that investigation.

Now, that information, coupled with a pretty strong paper trail linking Posada to Newark, New Jersey, and some money wire transfers to finance recruits for the bombing campaign in Havana, you know, could eventually spell a bona fide indictment in the Newark grand jury.

An awkward position for the U.S.

Jay Weaver
The Miami Herald
[Carriles] was a former CIA operative trained in explosives, had always sort of been on the right side of a lot of Cold Warrior activities in Venezuela, and in Cuba, and in Panama, in a variety of locations.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the case of this man in the United States since 2005 put the Bush administration, put the United States government in something of an awkward position while it's talking about a global war on terror?

JAY WEAVER: That's an understatement. It's a problem because Posada was once considered our freedom fighter. I mean, he was a former CIA operative trained in explosives, had always sort of been on the right side of a lot of Cold Warrior activities in Venezuela, and in Cuba, and in Panama, in a variety of locations.

He was even involved in the Iran-Contra matter doing re-supply efforts for the Contras out of Central America, you know, working with Ollie North. So he was always perceived as our freedom fighter. And the exile community in the Miami, at least the hard-liners, the old-timers, the anti-Castro types, have been very supportive of him.

But the problem is, the United States government has to appear consistent. And so he enters the United States, and there is this specter hanging over him of having not only masterminded the Havana bombings in 1997, but also the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976 that killed 73 people on board, mostly Cubans.

So we have a double standard we have to face. And there has been a lot of attacks from Venezuela and Cuba that we're coddling him. But I would say that the Justice Department has actually been pretty aggressive in going after him, in two fronts, one, the El Paso immigration fraud case, and then, of course, the Newark grand jury.

So I think that it's pretty clear that the Bush administration is faced with a dilemma, but at least the Justice Department appears to be taking a pretty hard line against him.

RAY SUAREZ: Short of sending him back to Cuba or Venezuela, has there been an effort to send him to other countries where he's lived in the past?

JAY WEAVER: Well, there have been. An immigration judge determined that he could not be sent back to Cuba or Venezuela because he would face torture there or could face torture there, so there's a question of whether a third country would take him.

And that has been problematic because there haven't been any takers. I mean, Mexico, Canada, and other countries, I believe there are a half dozen of them, have said no, because, you know, he is a hot potato. And they don't necessarily want him.

RAY SUAREZ: Jay Weaver of the Miami Herald, thanks for joining us.

JAY WEAVER: You're welcome.