A federal prosecutor told jurors Wednesday that an ex-CIA agent and nemesis of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro "can do anything he wants to the Cuban regime" but broke federal law when he lied about it under oath while seeking American citizenship.
During opening statements in the trial of Luis Posada Carriles, a defense attorney countered that the Cuban militant "substantially told the truth" during naturalization hearings in 2005 and that the government's case is built on an unreliable paid informant.
Posada, 82, faces 11 counts of perjury, obstruction and naturalization fraud. He is accused of making false statements during immigration interviews in 2005 in El Paso about how he got into the U.S. and about his role in a string of 1997 bombings that rocked Havana hotels and killed an Italian tourist.
In recent interviews with The Associated Press in Miami, where he lived with family while awaiting trial, Posada did not deny prosecutors' account of how he reached American soil five years ago, but he has still pleaded not guilty. He declined to directly answer questions about his role in the hotel bombings.
"The evidence will show that he lied. He lied repeatedly during these interviews," lead prosecutor Timothy Reardon, a Washington-based U.S. attorney who focuses on counterterrorism, told the jury of seven women and five men, most of them of Hispanic origin.
Posada's Miami-based attorney, Arturo Hernandez, said Posada has "always been on the side of our country" and that while he told some lies while seeking U.S. citizenship, he never committed perjury. Instead, Hernandez argues, Posada was the victim of false accusations by a paid government informant, Gilberto Abascal.
Cuba and Venezuela accuse Posada of masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Both governments also say Posada was behind the 1997 Havana hotel attacks.
The U.S. is not trying Posada on either matter, however, sticking only to immigration charges. A federal immigration judge has previously ruled he cannot be deported to Venezuela or Cuba for fear he could be tortured.
On Wednesday, the white-haired Posada wore a dark suit and stood briefly for the jury as Hernandez began his opening statement. During the rest of the proceedings he sat quietly and displayed very little emotion. He often makes a chewing motion with his mouth, having lost part of his tongue during a previous attempt on his life.
Posada was born in Cuba but left after Castro came to power in 1959. In the 1980s, he was acquitted in Venezuela of the airliner bombing, then escaped from prison while awaiting a government appeal. Also the former head of Venezuela's intelligence agency and an ex-U.S. Army 2nd lieutenant, Posada has denied taking part in blowing up the airliner, though declassified FBI documents quote informants as saying he was deeply involved in planning it.
Posada was convicted in Panama in connection with a separate 2000 attempt to assassinate Castro there but received a presidential pardon. In March 2005, his lawyer said Posada had come to Miami and was seeking U.S. political asylum. Under international pressure for harboring an accused terrorist, U.S. authorities arrested Posada in May 2005.
Posada has claimed he was brought across the U.S. border into Texas by a smuggler, but authorities allege he sailed from Mexico to Florida. In January 2007, a federal grand jury indicted Posada in the immigration fraud case after prosecutors argued that he lied about how he got into the United States during interviews in El Paso, and other facts about his past, including the hotel bombings.
Posada was released in April 2007 and has been living in Miami since. Cardone threw out the case a month later, criticizing the government's tactics. An appeals court in New Orleans ruled in 2008, however, that Posada should stand trial again in El Paso.
On Wednesday, Reardon used a slow and deliberate style and called the defendant "a remarkable man" who has spent his life opposing Cuba's communist government and is not on trial for doing so. But he said the case "is about choices, and he chose to lie."
Reardon said the evidence will prove that Posada used a false passport in Guatemala to travel to Isla Mujeres, near Cancun, Mexico, and was photographed having a haircut there in March 2005. He said men who traveled with Posada will testify he eventually sailed to Miami on a shrimp boat converted into a yacht.
Hernandez acknowledged Posada traveled to Isla Mujeres, but only to receive $10,000 from a benefactor. He then returned to Guatemala and paid a smuggler to escort him through Mexico and the northern border city of Matamoros, into Texas. He said the government's informant, Abascal, received at least $150,000 to provide false information and that he had even spied for the Cuban government.
Prosecutors also maintain Posada lied under oath when he denied involvement in the 1997 bombings, which killed Italian tourist Fabio Di Celmo at Havana's Hotel Copacabana. Reardon said the jury will hear tapes of interviews Posada granted the New York Times in which he tried to call attention to the bombings because "he wanted more bang for his buck," after fears the attacks had failed to substantially hurt Cuban tourism.
Hernandez said the Times and the reporter who conducted the interviews are biased, and that tapes are not authentic. He said they show Posada actually explains that those bombings were committed by Cuban government operatives, describing them as "an inside job."
"He's a political hot potato for the government and he has been treated that way," Hernandez said.