Luis Posada Carriles told an immigration court the Cuban regime is persecuting him and denied admitting he masterminded bombings in Cuba in 1997.
BY ALFONSO CHARDY
Cuban exile militant Luis Posada Carriles took the witness stand here Tuesday and said he is seeking asylum because Cuban leader Fidel Castro is persecuting him, but then acknowledged having lived and traveled throughout the region without encountering any harm in recent years.
Posada, 77, also denied having admitted in media interviews he was the mastermind of a series of bombings at Cuban tourist sites in 1997. He said one of the interviews, with The New York Times, was in English and therefore he misunderstood questions and misstated his answers because he had difficulty understanding the language. He said he understood similar questions in another interview with a Spanish-language television network but that his answers should not be construed as an admission of guilt.
The Cuban government wants to try Posada for the hotel bombings and has said he could be executed. However, Homeland Security has told the immigration court that the U.S. government would not deport Posada to Cuba.
In Venezuela—now an ally of Cuba—Posada was acquitted of the 1976 Cuban jet attack that killed 73 people. He fled from a Venezuelan prison before the government exhausted its appeals to retry him. Posada denies involvement in the case.
In Miami, meanwhile, Posada’s lead attorney—Eduardo Soto—disclosed that he planned to file a U.S. citizenship application for his client on the ground he is eligible for naturalization under a law that makes it easier for members and former members of the U.S. military to apply for citizenship.
‘‘All they need to demonstrate is membership in the armed forces during a period of hostility,’’ Soto said, adding that his client was a U.S. soldier during the Vietnam War. Soto said he planned to file the application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “as soon as possible.’‘
Posada’s 3 �-hour testimony was the first time the exile militant spoke publicly since giving a clandestine news conference in Miami-Dade County on May 17, just hours before U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers detained and transported him to a detention center in El Paso.
Posada’s asylum and deportation trial began Monday when immigration Judge William Abbott said he would order the exile militant deported to Venezuela if he loses his bid for protection and appeals.
Russ Knocke, a Homeland Security spokesman, said late Tuesday his agency had major problems with sending Posada to Venezuela.
His statement seemed to be a shift from the agency’s position in court Monday when the Homeland Security Prosecutor Gina Garrett Jackson expressed no objection when Judge Abbott designated Venezuela as the place of deportation because Posada was a naturalized citizen of that country.
Garrett-Jackson did say she ‘‘reserved the right’’ to elaborate further on Venezuela at a later date. She said consultations were ongoing.
The first witness, prior to Posada, was his longtime friend and Caracas lawyer Joaquin Chaffardet who testified that if Posada is expelled to Venezuela he will be tortured and then turned over to Cuba.
Posada was briefly questioned by his attorney, Matthew Archambeault, regarding his reasons for seeking asylum in the United States.
Posada said Castro was persecuting him to ‘‘do me harm,’’ and then cited an assassination attempt in Guatemala 15 years ago as evidence.
But when Posada was grilled for hours by Garrett-Jackson, it emerged he has used false passports and names to travel extensively around Central America and the Caribbean and nothing has happened to him since the Guatemalan attack in 1990.
In cross-examination, Garrett-Jackson elicited a series of contradictions by Posada about whether he faces imminent danger abroad.
Posada also refused to answer certain questions about using false identities, saying his answers would incriminate him.
But ultimately Posada acknowledged he used one false Salvadoran passport in the name of Franco Rodriguez Mena to travel to the United States on April 26, 2000 and then to enter Panama about seven months later where he was later convicted—and subsequently pardoned—in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate Castro.
Eventually, Garrett-Jackson asked Posada whether he stood by statements attributed to him in media interviews in which he was quoted as taking responsibility for the bombing attacks against Cuban hotels and restaurants in 1997.
Posada said he wanted to deny the report by The New York Times, not because he was misquoted, but because he had difficulty understanding the questions by reporter Ann Louise Bardach since his English is poor and therefore he probably did not explain himself clearly. Posada also said that The Times had retracted the article because of the language difficulty.
Bardach, who is covering the trial here, said afterward that the interview was mostly in English to make it easier to transcribe. But she said that during the interview in Aruba, Posada never expressed difficulty in understanding questions and that his English was “excellent.’‘
The Times never published a retraction. It did publish an editor’s note in which it clarified that Cuban American National Foundation leaders had not “paid specifically for the hotel bombings.’’