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U.S. to Check Reports of Abuse by INS

Cubans: Justice Dept. orders investigation into allegations that agents forced 6 refugees to pose for snapshot while holding a photo of Castro.

July 03, 1999|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department ordered an investigation Friday into reports that immigration agents in Florida harassed six Cuban refugees who were in custody, forcing them to pose for a snapshot while holding a photo of Cuban dictator Fidel Casto.

Cuban American activists were infuriated by the allegations, the latest in a controversy that began when Coast Guard officers were televised earlier this week trying to prevent the refugees from landing on U.S. soil.

To force a Cuban refugee to pose with a photo of Castro "is like asking a Jew to stand up for a picture with Hitler, or asking a black to stand up with someone in a KKK robe," said Ninoska Perez, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami.

"It's very cruel to do that to someone in that condition, someone who has risked his life to leave Cuba," Perez said.

An angry Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said Friday that she was "deeply troubled" by the allegations, adding: "We will simply not tolerate abuse of individuals in our custody and will take the strongest possible measures in response to all such allegations."

The initial furor involving the Cubans occurred Tuesday as their small wooden rowboats floated toward Surfside beach near Miami and were met by Coast Guard officers who used a water cannon and pepper spray to try to stop them from reaching the shore.

The aggressive tactics, shown live on Miami television, sparked angry protests from Cuban American groups, who charged that the Coast Guard had tried to kill the refugees.

U.S. officials sought to calm the protests by promising a full investigation of the Coast Guard's actions. But the fury intensified Friday after the Miami Herald published interviews with several of the refugees who alleged that they had been harassed and taunted while in federal custody in a facility at Pembroke Pines, north of Miami.

The men said that federal agents taunted them with abusive slurs in Spanish, mocked their desire to come to the United States and forced them to line up for a photograph while one of the detainees was made to hold a photo of Castro with the words "Viva Fidel" scrawled at the bottom.

One Immigration and Naturalization Service officer involved in the incident already has been reassigned temporarily to duties that do not involve contact with detainees, said INS Commission Doris Meissner.

A law enforcement source said that an early review appears to corroborate parts of the refugees' stories.

Investigators want to determine whether immigration agents may have used physical force, such as shoving, or the threat of force to get the men to stand for the photograph.

The episode was particularly troubling, the source said, because after the refugees were taken into custody Tuesday, Reno expressed "tremendous concern" about the Coast Guard's tactics and warned that federal procedures should be followed carefully during the Cubans' detention.

Reno has spoken out strongly in recent weeks about the dangerous pattern of high-profile police misconduct cases in New York and elsewhere, and the deteriorating effect they have had on public trust.

She said Friday that she takes such allegations "very seriously." Officials from the Justice Department inspector general's office and civil rights division will be reviewing the latest allegations, with assistance from the INS.

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