Comité Nacional por la Libertad de los Cinco Cubanos

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Is he a terrorist or a freedom fighter?

Ex-CIA agent some call anti-Castro hero is about to go free,
but kin of man killed in bombing demands he be retried

by Letta Tayler
Jan. 3, 2007
Reprinted from Newsday

When science whiz Raymond Persaud won a coveted scholarship to study medicine in Cuba, the excitement in his native Guyana was so great that his family had to borrow 80 extra chairs for well-wishers packing his farewell party.

The next day, the family was using the same chairs for Persaud's wake. A bomb ripped through the Cubana airliner that the 19-year-old student had boarded that morning for Havana, killing all 73 passengers and crew.

"My mother's screams were so intense I swear the neighbors must have heard. My father locked himself in his room for five days," recalled Raymond's sister, Roseanne Nenninger, of Port Jefferson, of the 1976 attack. "Raymond was so young and filled with such promise. We never got over it."

Three decades later, the bombing of Flight 455 has returned to Persaud's family with a new twist: The accused mastermind, a Cuban-born foe of Fidel Castro, is behind bars in the United States for an immigration infraction after sneaking into Miami in March 2005. But he may be freed in weeks because the U.S. government will not classify him a terrorist.

The suspect, Luis Posada Carriles, 79, is a notorious ex-CIA operative and Venezuelan national who was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, served four years for plotting to blow up Castro in Panama and boasted of bloody hotel bombings in Cuba. His case has placed the Bush administration in a political tug-of-war, worsened already tense relations with leftist Cuba and Venezuela, and complicated its war on terror.

Preventing Pandora's box

On one side are hard-line Cuban-Americans who consider Posada a hero and want the U.S. government to grant his request for asylum. On the other are criminal justice groups and victims' relatives, who say the government must extradite Posada to Venezuela, which wants to re-try him for the Cubana bombing, or investigate him for the crime here.

"We have a president who says he won't tolerate terrorism abroad, but our own government is sheltering a terrorist in our midst," said Nenninger, 41, a naturalized U.S. citizen who has launched a campaign to bring Posada to justice. "If this had been a plane full of Americans, it would be a different story."

Some critics suspect that the United States is reluctant to charge Posada because he may know too much. "A trial could open a Pandora's box of CIA actions that we used to call sabotage and now call terrorism," said Peter Kornbluh, who heads the National Security Archive, an independent research institute in Washington.

Kornbluh's group has published several declassified CIA and FBI documents implicating Posada in the Cubana attack.

"We are going to hit a Cuban airliner," one document quotes Posada as boasting within earshot of an informant in September 1976, one month before the blast. Another document from June 1976 says Posada himself informed a CIA contact of the plot but blamed it on associates. There is no evidence the CIA warned Cuba.

Jailed in a detention center in El Paso, Texas, the ailing Posada, a U.S. Army veteran, has renounced violence and denied links to the Cubana bombing or other attacks. His Miami lawyer, Eduardo Soto, notes he was twice acquitted in the airline attack in Venezuela - where the flight originated - before escaping from a Venezuelan prison, dressed as a priest, while awaiting re-trial in 1985.

Soto says the least the United States could do for Posada is give him asylum in Miami. "Luis perceives himself to be a freedom fighter, not a terrorist," Soto said. "He is a former CIA agent at the vanguard of our supposed foreign policy. Now, he is a frail old man."

'Bin Laden of Latin America''

Yet as recently as October, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement called Posada "an admitted mastermind of terrorist plots and attacks" and "a danger to the community." But it stopped short of classifying him as a terrorist, a move that would allow it to hold him indefinitely as a national security threat under laws passed after Sept. 11.

Instead, U.S. officials are trying to find a safe haven for Posada abroad. So far, Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Panama have refused him.

In October, a federal judge in El Paso said Posada has been detained "well beyond" the six-month limit for holding a foreigner and said he will free him if the government doesn't persuade him otherwise by Feb. 1. Because illegal entry is punishable only by deportation, he could be set free in the United States unless a foreign county is found to take him.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors in Newark and El Paso are investigating Posada for possible crimes that could extend his jail time. U.S. officials would not confirm the probes, but lawyers familiar with them said that, in El Paso, federal investigators are looking into allegations Posada lied about how he entered the United States.

In Newark, they said, the focus is on Cuban-Americans in Union City allegedly wiring $30,000 to Posada that may have been used in bombings of Havana hotels and clubs in 1997-98. In 1998, Posada admitted to planning those bombings, which killed an Italian tourist and wounded several others, but then recanted.

The Newark probe got a slow start because the FBI's Miami supervisor intentionally destroyed the Posada case file in 2003 - a process the bureau described as "routine" because investigations against him were at that time closed.

David Abraham, who teaches immigration law at the University of Miami, said it is not yet clear whether investigators are "just futzing around" with those two probes to deflect criticism they are soft on Posada.

One country that wants to try Posada for the bombing is Venezuela, which has an extradition treaty with the United States. But an immigration judge ruled that Posada could be tortured if he were sent to that country or to Cuba. The Bush administration, which has frosty relations with both countries, did not appeal.

Even if it won't extradite Posada, the United States could prosecute him itself under a 1973 international aviation convention to which it is party, according to independent legal experts and Jose Pertierra, a Washington attorney who represents Venezuela.

"This guy is the Osama bin Laden of Latin America," Pertierra said. "But the United States is trying to fight its war on terrorism a la carte, picking and choosing which terrorists to prosecute."

Officials with the Justice and State departments declined to comment on Posada, citing pending litigation. A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said only that the bureau is still trying to find him a home abroad.

Seeking asylum

An explosives expert and former exterminator whose nicknames include Bambi, Posada has been trying to topple Castro since he trained for the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. He took a detour in the mid-1980s to oversee supply flights for Nicaraguan Contra rebels from El Salvador in the illegal Iran-Contra affair. But he was back at anti-Castro work in 2000, when he was convicted in Panama in connection with a plot to blow up Castro in a packed auditorium in Panama City. Outgoing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoco pardoned Posada in 2004 in what critics view as an attempt to help President George W. Bush retain the support of Castro foes in the battleground state of Florida.

When he was arrested in Miami in May 2005, Posada hoped to be treated like his fellow Cuban exile Orlando Bosch. After being arrested for a parole violation in Miami, President George H.W. Bush gave Bosch asylum in 1990.

Bosch once headed a known terrorist group. He was acquitted in 1987 in Venezuela of the Cubana blast, but a declassified FBI document quotes an informant as saying that after the jet went down, one of two men who admitted to planting the bomb called Bosch to report: "A bus with 73 dogs went off a cliff and all got killed."

Fighting for his memory

The Oct. 6, 1976, bombing of the Cubana DC-8 was the first airline terrorist attack in the Western hemisphere. Explosives packed into a toothpaste tube downed the plane over the Caribbean, five miles short of a Barbados runway. Victims included six Guyanese medical students and the entire Cuban youth fencing team.

Most bodies were too disfigured to be identified. The only possible remains found of Persaud was an arm.

An avid scholar and student leader, Persaud had boarded the plane with a smile, dressed in a suit custom-made for the journey. His dream was to return to Guyana as a doctor.

"He always talked about giving back to his community," said Nenninger, a Stony Brook University graduate who practices naturopathic medicine.

Three years after the blast, Persaud's father, school principal Charles Persaud, moved with his wife and five remaining children to the Bronx to gain some distance from his son's death. But the elder Persaud never stopped trying to bring the bombers to justice.

"He was obsessed by the case," Nenninger said. "He wrote to the president, to members of Congress, he was writing a book about it." Her father died of a heart attack in 2003, Nenninger said, "but I think he really died of a broken heart."

When Nenninger learned Posada was in the United States, she reactivated her father's campaign, sending new letters to government officials and flying to Posada's immigration hearing in El Paso. Denied entry, she stood outside, holding a snapshot of Persaud as he boarded the doomed flight.

Nenninger also recently flew to San Francisco to start preparing a civil suit against Posada with the nonprofit Center for Justice and Accountability.

The lawsuit would not put Posada in jail. Nor would it be likely to result in significant awards. Nenninger doesn't care. What's important, she says, is that a jury find Posada responsible for the bombing.

"What I want is for the world to know that this man is a terrorist," she said. "Some people just want this piece of history to go away. I am not going to let that happen."

Terror in the skies

Until Sept. 11, 2001 Cubana Airlines Flight 455 was the worst act of terrorism aboard a commercial airliner in the Americas.

What happened

Flight 455 was on an island-hopping run around the Caribbean with stops scheduled in Trinidad, Barbados, Kingston, Jamaica, and Havana, Cuba. Tragedy struck halfway through the run.

10 a.m.: Takes off from Georgetown, Guyana, en rout to Trinidad

12:15 p.m.: Two colleagues of pilot mastermind Luis Posada, Freddy Lugo and Hernan Ricardo board Flight 455. While in flight they place C-4 explosives in a rear bathroom and underneath the seat belonging to Lugo

12:25 p.m.: Flight 455 departs Port of Spain, Trinidad, en route to Barbados.

1:15 p.m.: It departs Seawell Airport in Barbados for Kingston, Jamaica Lugo and Ricardo leave the plane.

1:24 p.m.: Bomb located in the aircraft bathroom explodes.

1:30 p.m.: Second explosion rocks the cabin and sends plane plummeting into Caribbean Sea.

Advance knowledge?

In this 1976 memo obtained by The National Security Archive, FBI Directory Clarence Kelly tells Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that Posada attended meetings in Caracas, Venezuela, where the plane bombing was planned.

Honorable Henry A. Kissinger
The Secretary of State
Washington, D.C. 20520

Dear Mr. Secretary:

In connection with the loss of Cuban Airlines Flight Number 455 in the Caribbean Sea on October 6, 1976, a confidential source of our Miami Office who has provided reliable information in the past, reported on November 1, 1976. The following significant information which is summarized below:

On October 23 and 24, 1976, our confidential source ascertained from Ricardo Morales Navarrete, an official of the Venezuelan Intelligence Service (DISIP), that the bombing of the Cubana Airlines DC-8 was planned, in part, in Caracas, Venezuela, at two meetings attended by Morales Navarrete, Luis Posado Carriles and Frank Castro, On one occasion, Gustavo Castillo was present.



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