U.S. jury clears five exiles in Castro murder plot
By John Marino
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Moments after a U.S. jury Wednesday found five Cuban exiles not guilty of plotting to kill Cuban President Fidel Castro, some jury members hugged the freed men and helped unfurl Cuban and Puerto Rican flags outside the courthouse.
“This verdict is a message to the people of Cuba that we are with them in their hope,” jury foreman Carlos Avila told reporters.
The case was the first time the U.S. Justice Department charged anyone with plotting to kill Castro, an arch foe of the United States since his 1959 revolution.
In Havana, Castro criticized the U.S. court system.
“The news has just arrived that the terrorist group intercepted on its way to Margarita with powerful weapons to assassinate me — which were, like the boat, property of that influential Mafia — were acquitted,” he said in a statement read by a student leader at a rally in Havana.
“Some of the best-known leaders of that organization, with proven participation in the events, were not even included in the trial.”
He was referring to the anti-Castro exile group Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) as “that organization” and ”Mafia.”
“This demonstrates how untrustworthy the courts of that country are in these circumstances.”
RIFLES ON BOARD
U.S. authorities alleged the men — some of whom were captured off Puerto Rico on a boat loaded with military gear including sniper rifles — wanted to murder the Communist leader during a 1997 Ibero-American summit on Venezuela’s Margarita Island.
The defense argued the men were peaceful protesters and the weapons were meant for protection against Cuban authorities.
The U.S. District Court jury deliberated for eight hours over two days before finding Angel Alfonso, 59, Angel Hernandez Rojo, 62, Francisco Secundino Cordova, 51, Jose Rodriguez Sosa, 59, and Jose Antonio Llama, 67, not guilty on all counts.
Ninoska Perez, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, applauded the verdicts.
“We think justice has been done despite the fact that they moved the trial from Miami to Puerto Rico, thinking that the Cuban-American community here would put pressure on this case or whatever,” she said. “Despite the efforts from the Clinton administration, it took a jury in Puerto Rico to exonerate these Cubans.”
The case dated back to Oct. 27, 1997, when four men — Alfonso, Hernandez, Secundino and Juan Bautista Marquez, 62 — were taken into custody aboard a cabin cruiser, La Esperanza, off the west coast of Puerto Rico.
CONSPIRACY CHARGES REJECTED
A subsequent indictment named Alfredo Domingo Otero, 68, Rodriguez, and Llama, the boat’s owner and an executive board member of the Miami-based CANF, a leading architect of hard-line U.S. policy toward Communist Cuba.
The men on La Esperanza raised the suspicions of U.S. authorities when they said they were on a fishing trip. After hauling the vessel into port, the U.S. Coast Guard found high-powered rifles, ammunition, night-scopes, goggles, fatigues and high-tech communications gear.
All the defendants faced charges of conspiracy to assassinate an internationally protected person and others related to the use of a vessel in carrying out that crime. The three defendants on the boat on Oct. 27 who were on trial also faced charges of weapons smuggling and lying to authorities.
Over the two-week trial, prosecutors called in expert witnesses to try to persuade the jury of eight women and four men that the defendants plotted to kill Castro.
But one defense witness, Lazaro Betancourt, a member of Castro’s security detail who defected in April, testified that security was so tight on Margarita that the men could not possibly have carried out the assassination.
Last week, Laffitte dismissed charges against Otero and Nautical Sports, Inc., a firm belonging to Llama. Bautista was too ill to stand trial.
Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited.