Cuban ex-CIA agent acquitted of charges alleging he lied during US immigration hearing

News from Cuba | Monday, 9 May 2011

By Will Weissert, The Associated Press

An elderly Cuban former CIA operative accused of lying during a U.S. immigration hearing was acquitted on all charges Friday, with jurors taking just three hours to reach a verdict after enduring 13 weeks of often-delayed testimony.

The abrupt decision ends four years of attempts by the U.S. government to convict 83-year-old Luis Posada Carriles and means he no longer has to face the prospect of spending the final years of his life in prison, at least in the United States.

For decades, Posada worked to destabilize communist governments throughout Latin America and was often supported by Washington. He is Public Enemy No. 1 in his homeland, even considered ex-President Fidel Castro's nemesis. In Havana, the government had no immediate comment to his being cleared across-the-board.

Appearing a news conference in his attorney's office following the verdict, he said his days of trying to bring regime change to Cuba were behind him.

"I see liberty at the end of my life. I have no aspirations in Cuba, except maybe to see the beaches," Posada said. "I hope the Lord (will) give me a few more years so I can see them again."

After hearing he had been acquitted on all 11 counts of perjury, obstruction and immigration fraud, the white-haired Posada grinned widely then hugged his three attorneys simultaneously. Two of the lawyers wiped away tears.

Across the aisle, a trio of federal prosecutors who painstakingly built their case by calling 23 witnesses over 11 weeks, sat dejectedly.

"Anytime a jury has a case, there's no telling what they might do. But we respect the jury's decision," Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Reardon said moments afterward. He declined further comment.

U.S. marshals escorted jurors out the back of the courthouse and put them in a van, ensuring they did not speak to reporters.

In Cuba, a statement read on government-controlled television's nightly newscast declared, "The show is over in El Paso."

"The international terrorist Luis Posada Carriles is declared innocent of all charges," it said. "The empire protects its executioners."

Posada has slurred his words since being shot in the face and losing part of his tongue during a 1990 assassination attempt in Guatemala.

He sneaked into the U.S. in 2005 and sought political asylum, and later U.S. citizenship, for which he went through immigration hearings in El Paso.

Prosecutors alleged that he lied while under oath during those proceedings about how he made it into the country and by denying he masterminded a series of hotel bombings in Cuba in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist and wounded about 12 other people.

Posada said in a 1998 interview with The New York Times that he planned the attacks, but later recanted that. During the trial, jurors heard more than two hours of recordings from those interviews, but apparently were not swayed by them.

"I was never afraid that we were going to lose this case," Posada said, adding that he took his entire defence team out for dinner Thursday night before the jury even began deliberating

"We celebrated this yesterday," he said.

The defence, which called just eight witnesses over eight days, maintained Posada should have been allowed to retire a hero for his service to the U.S. during the Cold War. He was held in immigration detention centres for about two years, but was released in 2007 and has been living in Miami.

"It's time for the government to stop persecuting Luis Posada Carriles. Leave my client alone," said his lead attorney, Miami-based Arturo Hernandez.

Posada participated in the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion, served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was a CIA operative until 1976. He then moved to Venezuela and served as head of that country's intelligence service.

He was arrested for planning the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, but was acquitted by a Venezuelan military tribunal, then escaped from prison while still facing a civilian trial.

He helped the U.S. funnel support to Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s, and, in 2000, was arrested in Panama amid a plot to kill Castro during a summit there. He was pardoned by Panama's president in 2004 and turned up in the U.S. the following March.

Cuba and Venezuela would like to try Posada for the 1997 hotel bombings or the downing of the 1976 airliner, but a U.S.

immigration judge has previously ruled that he can't be sent to either country, for fear he could be tortured. He has escaped deportation elsewhere since no other country is willing to take him.

Jose Pertierra, the Washington-based lawyer representing Venezuela in its case against Posada sat through every day of the trial.

"The theatre was worth more than the evidence in this case," Pertierra said. "The evidence was strong. We heard the voice of Luis Posada saying he was the mastermind of the bombings," He said Venezuela will renew its efforts to have Posada extradited to face 73 counts of first-degree murder.

Pepe Hernandez, who heads the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami and who trained with Posada ahead of the Bay of Pigs invasion, applauded the verdict.

"The U.S. government had a very scant case. Obviously, it didn't have any evidence beyond that of Ann Louise Bardach," Hernandez said, referring to the reporter who interviewed Posada for the Times.

The U.S. first tried to convict Posada in El Paso of seven perjury and immigration fraud charges in 2007, but the judge that case out, chastising the government for using an immigration hearing to build a criminal case against Posada.

When that ruling was overturned on appeal, prosecutors added four new charges, including those alleging obstruction of justice.

Despite the acquittal, his attorneys said Posada will continue to wear an electronic ankle bracelet - at least for the time being.

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