Extradition of exile asked
WASHINGTON - Venezuela on Friday formally asked the United States to arrest anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carriles, who slipped into South Florida in March, so he can be extradited for his alleged role in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger jet that killed 73 people.
The move by Venezuela raises the international stakes surrounding the Posada case, which threatens to escalate tensions between the United States and two of its most hostile neighbors in the hemisphere.
Posada plans to come out of hiding to request asylum, according to his lawyer, although the State Department has expressed doubts that Posada is even in the United States.
Venezuelan consular officials in Washington filed the arrest request with the State Department before noon on Friday, the Venezuelan embassy said in an e-mail message. Arelis Paiva, an embassy spokeswoman, said the request was the first step in the required paperwork that will culminate in her country's formal filing of an extradition request in the near future.
A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the Venezuelan request.
Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman, said that if the request is referred to his agency, Justice officials would review it in consultation ``with all appropriate agencies.''
Posada, who has said he is innocent in the bombing, escaped from a Venezuelan prison in 1985.
He was arrested in Panama in 2000 on charges of illegally carrying explosives, presumably to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He was freed by a presidential pardon in August 2004 and disappeared.
Miami developer Santiago Alvarez, Posada's friend and benefactor in South Florida, said Posada should not be extradited to Venezuela because he already has been tried and acquitted there twice in connection with the airliner bombing.
''At this moment, Venezuela is only acting on behalf of Cuba,'' Alvarez said. ``They haven't cared about him for 20 years. Now they are asking for him because Castro wants him.''
Eduardo Soto, Posada's Coral Gables immigration attorney, said he does not believe Venezuela would prevail in the extradition request.
''This extradition does not warrant that my client be removed from the country,'' Soto said. ``The fact my client spent nine years in detention and was not convicted in Venezuela indicates they would have a very, very, very uphill battle in showing how they plan to convict my client.''
In extradition cases, federal judges generally grant removal to the country that seeks extradition if it is determined prosecutors there have a likelihood of winning a conviction.
PRESSURE ON CARACAS
Alvarez suggested that the Venezuelan government -- because of its strong alliance with Cuba -- may put pressure on courts in Caracas to convict Posada if he is extradited.
As for Posada's asylum request, filed in mid-April, Soto has said extradition would likely put it on hold.
But immigration case law suggests that asylum cases run on an independent track -- at least until they reach the Board of Immigration Appeals, which in the past has stayed consideration of asylum until an extradition petition is resolved.
There has been no indication from the Bush administration whether it plans to file the Venezuelan extradition request in federal court with a sworn affidavit seeking Posada's arrest.
In a case last year involving a Venezuelan extradition request for two former national guard lieutenants accused of bombing diplomatic missions in Caracas, the Bush administration never filed the extradition request in a regular court.
Instead, it filed the request in immigration court as evidence against the former lieutenants, whose deportations to Venezuela were sought by Homeland Security.
The immigration judge denied the ex-lieutenants' asylum request, but delayed their deportations on the grounds that they would likely be tortured if returned to Venezuela.
The ex-lieutenants have appealed the asylum denial and Homeland Security is appealing the deportation suspension.
Soto also said that a lawyer for Posada in Venezuela had been unable to get access to the airliner bombing case file.
''We have asked for copies of the file to be provided to us for the preparation here of our defense of Mr. Posada,'' Soto said.
U.S. IN A BIND
If the United States allowed Posada to stay, it could appear to harbor an international terrorist even as it demanded that other nations not do so, said Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
''The only acceptable action is to expel Luis Posada Carriles from the United States,'' he said in a press conference on Friday that was organized by ANSWER Coalition, an anti-war group that is carrying out a letter-writing campaign in support of the extradition request.
The ANSWER Coalition opposes the U.S. embargo of Cuba and is lobbying the U.S. government to free five Cubans convicted of espionage in the United States.
The group has sent out more than 20,000 letters to the Bush administration and members of Congress in three weeks, said Brian Becker, ANSWER Coalition's national coordinator.
The group also showed video testimonies by relatives of the bombing victims, and played an audio recording of the Cuban Airlines pilot's urgent pleas for landing permission as the aircraft was being engulfed in flames.
Politicians in Congress have been ''servile to the basic core, antagonistic policy of the U.S. government against Cuba to such a degree that they could ignore Posada Carriles presence,'' Becker said.