5 Cuban Exiles Charged With Plotting to Kill Castro Are Acquitted
In a defeat for government prosecutors, five Cuban exiles charged with plotting to kill Fidel Castro at a Caribbean summit meeting two years ago were acquitted yesterday of all the charges against them by a federal jury in Puerto Rico.
The federal district judge in the case, Hector M. Laffitte, had already dismissed conspiracy charges against a sixth defendant for lack of evidence. A seventh man, who has cancer, is to be tried later.
The announcement of the verdicts, after only about seven hours of deliberations, brought tears from the defendants, the youngest of whom was 59.
The case was the first ever brought in the United States charging a conspiracy to assassinate Mr. Castro. It also raised questions about the activities of the powerful political group with which several of the men were affiliated, the Cuban American National Foundation.
The foundation, which lobbies on United States policy toward Cuba and other issues, and the accused men insisted that they channeled their opposition to the Castro government through wholly peaceful means.
Doubts about the defendants’ intentions emerged as soon as Coast Guard officers intercepted four of the men on a cabin cruiser off Puerto Rico in October 1997.
When the authorities discovered two huge .50-caliber sniper rifles aboard the boat, one of the defendants, Angel Alfonso, blurted out that the guns were his and that his ”sole mission in life,” was to kill the Cuban leader.
In court, where only part of Mr. Alfonso’s statement was admitted as evidence, his lawyer, Ricardo R. Pesquera, said his client was just bluffing.
Without putting any of the defendants on the witness stand, their lawyers accepted virtually all of the circumstantial evidence the prosecution put forth: the contradictory statements to Coast Guard officers; the preparation of the boat, the rifles, and night-vision goggles; and the renting of a temporary apartment on Venezuela’s Margarita Island, where Mr. Castro met with other heads of state from Latin American, Spain and Portugal in the first days of November 1997.
But while the prosecutors argued that the rifles and the amateurish skullduggery were clearly directed at killing the Cuban leader, defense lawyers insisted that the men were peaceful activists headed for the island to demonstrate against Mr. Castro and perhaps to help spirit away any members of his entourage who might care to seek asylum in the United States.
The heavy, five-foot sniper rifles, they said, were meant for ”self-defense.”
While some of the men had at times been associated with militant anti-Castro activities, the prosecutors offered virtually no evidence about the defendants’ political backgrounds. At one point, one of the prosecutors said the government was thinking of presenting evidence of money transfers linked to violent events in other countries, but it did not.
”This was not a political case for the government,” one of the prosecutors, Scott J. Glick, said in a telephone interview. ”Given the evidence we found, it would have been a political decision not to go forward. For the government, this was about the rule of law.”
Nonetheless, lawyers for the defendants were quick to claim a political victory.
”This was a message to the United States government that you cannot be so hypocritical,” Mr. Pesquera said. He cautioned that he was not admitting to any assassination plot but added: ”The United States government tried on many occasions to kill Fidel Castro.”
The outcome also confounded the expectations of some lawyers that a jury of Puerto Ricans, whose politics tend to be liberal, might have trouble finding common cause with militantly anti-Castro Cuban-Americans. Defense lawyers seemed to have taken care of that by taking every opportunity they could to compare the Cubans’ battle with Washington to those of nationalistic Puerto Ricans, including the current furor over a Navy bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
This afternoon, as the defendants congratulated one another outside the courtroom, at least two of the jurors hurried over to embrace them and then joined them for a celebration at a local restaurant.
”We wanted to send a message to the Cuban community that we are with them and that they should not give up hope,” the jury foreman, Carlos Avila, 27, told reporters.
Along with Mr. Alfonso, those cleared were: Jose Antonio Llamas, a director of the Cuban American National Foundation; Angel Hernandez; Jose Rodriguez Sosa, and Francisco Secundino Cordova.