Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Strange Case of Luis Posada Carriles

President Bush has often insisted that “if you harbor a terrorist, you’re equally as guilty as the terrorists.” In that regard, it’s instructive to consider the ongoing extradition battle between Venezuela and the United States over Luis Posada Carriles, who is currently being held in federal detention in Texas. By any definition, Posada richly deserves the description “terrorist,” yet the Bush administration continues to protect him. Here are a few highlights of his long and varied career, most culled from declassified CIA documents:

  • In October, 1976, Posada masterminded the bombing of an Air Cubana flight from Barbados to Cuba, killing all 73 people aboard. A few days before the bombing, a reliable CIA source heard Posada say, “[w]e are going to hit a Cuban airplane.”
  • In 1998, Posada proudly told a New York Times reporter that he was responsible for a string of hotel bombings in Havana that killed an Italian businessman and wounded 11. “It is sad someone is dead,” he admitted. “But we can’t stop.”
  • In 2000, Posada was convicted in Panama of conspiring to assassinate Fidel Castro (he had 34 pounds of C-4 in his possession when he was arrested). He was pardoned in 2004 by the outgoing Panamanian president, Mireya Moscoso.

The extradition battle between the U.S. and Venezuela began in April, 2004, when Posada requested political asylum in the U.S. The Venezuelan government immediately sought Posada’s extradition, pursuant to its 1922 treaty with the U.S.; it intends to retry him for the bombing of the Air Cubana plane. Posada had been acquitted of that charge by a Venezuelan military court in the mid-1980s, but a higher military court overturned the acquittal, ruling that Posada should have been tried in civilian court. Posada then escaped from a Venezuelan jail before the retrial.

At first, the State Department questioned whether Posada was actually in the country – adding that the charges against him “may be a completely manufactured issue.” The Department of Homeland Security only took Posada into custody in Miami after he held a series of public press conferences and a number of declassified CIA documents were released about his violent past (and his cozy relationship with the CIA), creating headlines around the world.

On September 28, 2005, an immigration judge ruled that Posada could not be extradited to either Venezuela or Cuba (which also sought his extradition, but does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S.) because he “faced the threat of torture in Venezuela.” It was clear from the beginning that DHS’s heart was not in the case; even after the immigration judge indicated that Posada had presented a strong argument that he would be tortured, DHS did not call a single witness in rebuttal. Nor did it appeal the judge’s ruling to the Bureau of Immigration Appeals – thus foreclosing the possibility of his extradition to Venezuela for good. The only question now is whether Posada will be released from custody or extradited to a country other than Cuba or Venezuela. Outright freedom is a distinct possibility: no country has yet said that it would accept him, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement only has until March to determine his fate. (An internal DHS memo states that ICE’s policy is to “favor release of aliens who have been granted protection relief by an immigration judge.”)

It’s not surprising, of course, that the U.S. government is protecting Posada. According to CIA documents, he was on the CIA’s payroll from 1965 to 1976, usually training paramilitary forces in the dark arts of sabotage and explosives. And he was deeply involved in the Iran-Contra scandal after he escaped from prison in 1985, shipping arms and supplies to the Contras under the code name “Ramon Medina.”

Still, Posada’s case is thick with irony – not least the glaring disparity between Bush’s tough talk about harboring terrorists and his administration’s kid-gloves treatment of Posada. Even more ironic, though, is the legal authority the immigration judge cited in defense of his refusal to extradite Posada to Venezuela: Article 3 of the UN Convention Against Torture, which prohibits extradition “to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” This is, of course, the same Convention that the Bush administration has systematically violated with its well-documented history of “extraordinary renditions.” As Human Rights Watch notes:

The CIA has regularly transferred detainees to countries in the Middle East, including Egypt and Syria, known to practice torture routinely. There are reportedly 100 to 150 cases of such “extraordinary renditions.” In one case, Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian in transit in New York, was detained by U.S. authorities and sent to Syria. He was released without charge from Syrian custody ten months later and has described repeated torture, often with cables and electrical cords. In another case, a U.S. government-leased airplane transported two Egyptian suspects who were blindfolded, hooded, drugged, and diapered by hooded operatives, from Sweden to Egypt. There the two men were held incommunicado for five weeks and have given detailed accounts of the torture they suffered (e.g. electric shocks), including in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison. In a third case, Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-born Australian in American custody, was transported from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Egypt to Guantánamo Bay. Now back home in Australia, Habib alleges that he was tortured during his six months in Egypt with beatings and electric shocks, and hung from the walls by hooks.
UPDATE: A tip-of-the-hat is due to Michael Froomkin, who mentioned the case on his Discourse.net blog last month.

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