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Alleged Cuban Airline Bomber Free After Acquittal on Immigration Charges

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Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative best known as the suspected mastermind of the deadly 1976 bombing of a Cuban airline jet, was acquitted Friday. He wasn’t facing terrorism charges, but 11 charges of perjury, immigration fraud, and obstruction of justice. Although the U.S. government believes he is an international terrorist, Posada Carriles was freed on Friday. Will the Obama administration let him walk the streets of Miami? [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMay 10, 2007EXCLUSIVE: Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon on the Release of Ex-CIA Operative Posada Carriles, the Cuban 5, Guantanamo and the Health of Fidel Castro
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A former CIA operative best known as the suspected mastermind of the 1976 bombing of a Cubana airline jet was acquitted Friday. But instead of terrorism charges, Luis Posada Carriles faced 11 charges of perjury, immigration fraud and obstruction of justice. The 83-year-old Cuban exile and anti-Castro militant was accused of lying under oath during an immigration hearing. Prosecutors say Posada Carriles lied about how he entered the United States in 2005, lied by denying his role in a series of bombings in Havana in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist and wounded 12 others. Posada Carriles had formerly admitted on tape to his role in the hotel bombings but later recanted.

After a 13-week trial, a jury in El Paso, Texas, deliberated for just three hours Friday and handed down a unanimous verdict of “not guilty” on all counts. Posada Carriles was facing a maximum of five to eight years in prison. His acquittal marks the end of a fourth attempt by the United States to convict him.

Cuba and Venezuela would like the United States to extradite him so he can be tried for his role in the bombings, but the U.S. has so far refused. Posada Carriles says he now plans to return to live with his family in Miami.

In a statement released after the verdict, the Cuban Foreign Ministry said, quote, “The U.S. government’s protection of Posada Carriles has become an emblematic case of the U.S. double standard in the international fight against terrorism.”

To speak more about the trial and the history of Luis Posada Carriles, we’re joined by Peter Kornbluh in Washington, D.C., director of the National Security Archive at the George Washington University and the Cuba Documentation Project.

Peter, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what happened in this trial.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, I was at the trial for its opening week and followed it very carefully. It was a difficult sell. It was hard to present all the evidence in a coherent way. The defense lawyer, Arturo Hernandez, was very professional, very obstructionist, very, very effective. And over the course of three months, the jury, I think, simply lost the ability to follow the evidence and to care that much. I mean, we had a three-month trial, massive amounts of evidence, and the jury deliberated less than three hours.

I mean, first and foremost, Amy, this is an insult to Posada’s many victims and their families, who were hoping for a small modicum of justice to come out of this one prosecution of Posada. Beyond that, it is a disaster for the U.S. legal system in its ability to prosecute terrorists, even on moderate, low-level charges. It is a blow, as the Cuban government pointed out, to the credibility of the U.S. effort to lead a fight against international terrorism, because we’re now in a situation we’re going to be harboring a well-known terrorist in the United States of America. And finally, it really does blow — deal a blow to U.S.-Cuban relations. The Cuban government really did cooperate in this case. They provided access to evidence, access to witnesses. They sent witnesses to the trial to testify. And so, this is a real hard blow to the future of U.S.-Cuban relations, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly who Luis Posada Carriles is, Peter Kornbluh.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, he is at the top — well, Luis Posada Carriles is certainly on any terrorist expert’s list of top 10 most prolific purveyors of violence over the last 30 or 40 years. He was a Cuban, left Cuba after the revolution, started to work with the CIA, was a paid asset and trainer in sabotage, in explosions — in explosives for the CIA, training other Cuban militants in the mid-1960s. He was on the CIA payroll from 1965 through 1976. He left the United States in 1967 and moved to Caracas, Venezuela, where he became a very high official in the Venezuelan secret police, DISIP.

And while he was in Caracas, in October of 1976, according to CIA and FBI declassified secret documents, he was one of the two masterminds of one of the most heinous acts of international terrorism in the Western Hemisphere before our own 9/11: the bombing of a Cubana flight, mid-air, killing 73 men, women and children on October 6, 1976.

He has a long history beyond that. He went on to orchestrate a series of hotel bombings in Cuba in the late 1990s. He was arrested in Panama in November of 2000 with a car full of C-4 explosives and dynamite in an effort to blow up Fidel Castro during a Iberian-American summit. I mean, the list goes on and on and on.

And we had hoped that he would actually be convicted and, at 83 years old, spend the rest of his life in prison. Instead, it may be that he is able to live in retirement in Miami, which is, you know, a complete stunning turn of events for anybody who cares about the security of U.S. citizens and justice for the victims of international terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, I wanted to go back to that Cubana Flight 455 from Barbados to Havana, the first mid-air bombing of a civilian airliner in the Western Hemisphere. The plane was brought down October 6, 1976. All 73 people, as you said, were killed, including the Cuban national fencing team. The airline’s black box recorded the final moments of Flight 455. The audio is difficult to make out, but it begins with the sound of the explosion. One of the pilots is heard saying, “We are descending immediately. We have fire on board.”


AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Four-five-five, [inaudible].

CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: We have had explosion, and we are descending immediately. We have fire on board.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Cubana 455, [inaudible].

CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: [inaudible] Cubana 455, we’re requesting immediately, immediately landing.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Cubana 455, you are cleared to land.

CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: La puerta. Cierra la puerta. [inaudible]

AMY GOODMAN: That audio captured in the final moments of Cubana Flight 455, brought down by an on-flight bomb, October 1976, en route to Havana. Peter Kornbluh, how did Luis Posada Carriles end up in the United States? Why is he living in Miami now?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, Amy, just let me say that after the “not guilty” verdict on Friday, I was in touch with the sister of one of the Guyanese medical students who was on that plane and who died on that plane, a 19-year-old science student named Raymond Persaud, and he was on his way to Cuba for a scholarship to study medicine to become one of the few doctors in Guyana at that time. And, of course, he was killed along with 72 other people. And it’s just a very sad state of affairs for his family, that had hoped that Posada would finally, you know, be convicted on terrorism charges.

You know, Posada escaped from prison in Venezuela, where he was being prosecuted for blowing up that plane, in 1985, with the help of anti-Castro, Miami Cuban Americans who sent money to him. He bribed his way out. He immediately went to Central America and joined Oliver North’s famous Iran-Contra operations, working surreptitiously with the Contras in El Salvador. He eventually orchestrated the hotel bombings, as I said. And then he was arrested in Panama for trying to kill Fidel Castro. He served four years in prison there and then was pardoned — another story that hasn’t really been told — by the outgoing right-wing president. And he was a fugitive for a year, and then he simply came to the United States.

He was brought, according to the evidence presented in court over these last 13 weeks, in a boat by one of his benefactors from Miami, a very wealthy Cuban American named Santiago Álvarez. He was brought surreptitiously from Mexico on a boat, just came into the country. And he thought, during the Bush administration, that he could simply appear, ask for asylum, ask to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, and he would be welcomed. We posted the CIA and FBI documents about his role in the plane bombing, and eventually he was arrested and detained for a couple of years, while he was undergoing this kind of whole long process of immigration charges.

But I just want to let your listeners know, here’s an individual who’s on the no-fly list. He can’t even get on a plane, a commercial airliner, from El Paso, where he was prosecuted, and fly back to Miami, because he’s considered a danger to aviation and to the security of American citizens. And that is documented in the papers from the U.S. government that are part of this case. And the issue now is, what is the U.S. government going to do with this individual? They’ve just presented a case in court that he’s an international terrorist. And now, are we just going to let him go back to Miami? You know, it really is an issue that has to be addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: If the U.S. government has made a case that he’s an international terrorist, can they arrest him under the USA PATRIOT Act?

PETER KORNBLUH: They could detain him under the PATRIOT Act. I mean, I, as a progressive person, don’t want to be supporting the PATRIOT Act and the violation of civil liberties that it portends; but on the other hand, it does seem to be tailor-made for a case like this, where you have great difficulties in the bombing of the plane, in the hotel bombings, even in the case in Panama — you have great difficulties in presenting a case in a U.S. court that can bring this man to justice. And so, he could be detained under the PATRIOT Act.

He is still an illegal alien here, whether he was acquitted of lying or not. He came here illegally. He doesn’t have papers to be here. He doesn’t have a visa. He doesn’t have any resident papers. I mean, he still can be deported, if the U.S. government wants to deport him and can find a place to deport him to. And Venezuela, where he escaped from prison in 1985, has a valid extradition request into the Obama administration for his extradition to Venezuela to be prosecuted for the plane bombing, and the Obama administration could grant that request, if it wanted to. So, it has many options other than letting him return and live freely in Miami, to address the issue that we have — that the U.S. government’s position is this man is an international terrorist and should be treated as such.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. Thanks for joining us from Washington, D.C.

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EXCLUSIVE: Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon on the Release of Ex-CIA Operative Posada Carriles, the Cuban 5, Guantanamo and the Health of Fidel Castro

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