BY OSCAR CORRAL AND ALFONSO CHARDY | Miami Herald

PANAMA CITY, Panama - Two years ago, when anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carriles was imprisoned here for his role in an alleged plot to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro, South Florida’s three Cuban-American members of Congress lobbied the Panamanian government to pardon him.

But today, with Posada in the United States seeking political asylum after sneaking into the country illegally, the same lawmakers—Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—have remained quietly on the sidelines.

The reason, political observers say, is political pragmatism in light of the American public’s heightened sensitivities after 9/11 toward anything smacking of terrorism.

It is one thing to speak up for Posada in Panama, despite accusations from Venezuela and Cuba that he is a terrorist who helped mastermind the bombing of a Cuban jetliner in the 1970s, said Kevin Hill, professor of political science at Florida International University. It’s another to rally to his side in the United States, where the Bush administration, which is holding Posada in an immigration lockup in Texas, has to tread delicately on the terrorism issue.

`POLITICAL FAVOR’

‘‘Politically, the situation has changed,’’ Hill said. ``In Panama, their support for these exiles was a political favor to help Bush get support [among Cuban exile voters]. Now, they don’t want to put the president on the spot because they don’t want to burn bridges with him. . . . There’s consistency, and then there’s politics.’‘

Posada and three other exiles were caught with explosives in Panama in 2000, and prosecutors accused them of plotting to kill Castro, but they were eventually convicted of lesser charges of endangering public safety.

Posada has made no secret of his disdain for the Castro government. The Cuban and Venezuelan governments consider him a mastermind of the bombing of a Cubana jetliner in 1976 that killed 73 people, and of being behind a series of explosions in Cuba that left one man dead.

Posada has always denied any role in the plane attack, but has admitted, and then dodged questions about, a role in the Cuban bombings.

The Panamanian government unsealed its case files in the Castro plot at The Herald’s request, and records highlight how the prominent exile lawmakers went to bat for Posada and his accomplices.

The 2003 petition from the Republican representatives asked Panama’s president at the time, Mireya Moscoso, to free Posada and three accomplices.

‘‘We ask respectfully that you pardon Luis Posada Carriles, Guillermo Novo Sampol, Pedro Crispin Remon and Gaspar Jimenez Escobedo,’’ the signed letter, written in Spanish on U.S. Congress stationery, shows.

Moscoso stunned prosecutors in Panama when she pardoned the men last August. By then, they had served about four months of a seven- to eight-year sentence on charges stemming from the alleged plot to kill Castro.

Panamanian prosecutors say they are investigating the legality of the pardons.

The letters might not have drawn attention had Posada not shown up in Miami in March. The D�az-Balarts and Ros-Lehtinen issued a joint statement Friday, saying that they wrote to Moscoso after two of the prisoners’ wives had come to them for help. Their statement also said they had wanted to express ‘‘concern over the lack of due process in their cases’’ in Panama.

‘‘Regarding Mr. Luis Posada’s current detention, we have confidence that the rule of law and all due process guarantees will be followed in this immigration law case in the United States,’’ the statement said.

The Panamanian files also show that some local South Florida exile leaders petitioned Moscoso, too. Among them: former Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman, Miami Commissioner Tomas Regalado and then-Sweetwater Mayor Jose ‘‘Pepe’’ Diaz, now a county commissioner.

APPEAL TO PRESIDENT

‘‘We beseech you, Ms. President, that within the power that your authority permits,’’ Roman wrote in Spanish, ``you let the four return to the homes where their families await them.’‘

Regalado said he wrote because the four men are his friends and he felt that they were wrongly accused by Castro. Regalado said Posada should receive asylum in the United States.

‘‘He should be free now,’’ the commissioner said. ``I have no respect for people who wanted him free in Panama but don’t support him now.’‘

Diaz also said Posada should be granted asylum.

CASTRO’s VISIT

The Panama case began in dramatic fashion in 2000, when Castro stepped off an airplane to attend a presidential summit here and immediately announced that there was a plot to kill him. He named the four exiles, prompting Panamanian authorities to arrest them.

Posada has said he was in Panama to help a Cuban general defect. But investigators here found bags of plastic explosives and surmised that the exiles planned to kill Castro at a local auditorium.

The Panamanian case files show that the U.S. legislators sent their first letter on May 8, 2003, asking Moscoso to speed up the case, which had dragged on for three years.

The four exiles were convicted by a Panamanian judge on April 20, 2004, on lesser charges—called common crimes—of endangering public safety.

The U.S. legislators sent a second letter on Nov. 5, 2003.

‘‘As you know,’’ that letter said, ‘Article 179 of the Constitution of the Republic of Panama authorizes the President of the Republic to `decree pardons for political crimes, reduce sentences and grant conditional liberty to prisoners who committed common crimes.’ ‘’

Moscoso, who could not be reached for comment, has denied that the U.S. government influenced her decision. She said she pardoned the men because, among other reasons, she was leaving office and feared that the exiles would be extradited to Cuba, where they could have faced a death sentence.

But Mara Silvera, a Panamanian federal prosecutor, told The Herald that Moscoso may have overstepped her powers and could face charges that she violated her country’s constitution. Silvera said the constitution permits presidential pardons in political cases, not common crimes.

AN INVESTIGATION

Another federal prosecutor, Maribel Cornejo, said Panama is investigating the police chief of that time, accused of spiriting Posada and the other exiles out of the country before government authorities had signed off on the releases.

Moscoso’s lawyer, Rogelio Cruz, said everything was done legally. He also said the letters from the exile leaders helped influence Moscoso.

‘‘They were part of all the elements she used to make her decision,’’ he said.