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4 Cuban Plotters Are Freed by Panama

August 27, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Panama's outgoing president Thursday freed four Cuban exiles convicted of plotting to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro, triggering outrage in Havana, where officials severed relations with Panama and warned the U.S. that giving refuge to the men would show complicity in terrorism.

Two planes chartered by a prominent member of the Cuban exile community in Miami ferried the pardoned men from Panama City, flying three of them, all holders of U.S. passports, back to jubilant friends and families at Florida's Opa-Locka Airport. The fourth and most controversial, Luis Posada Carriles, was taken to an undisclosed foreign location.

Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso signed the clemency decree Wednesday, a week before she is to cede the office to Martin Torrijos, son of late strongman and former Castro ally Gen. Omar Torrijos. Moscoso's decision was made public after the men's release and departure early Thursday.

Posada, a former CIA operative with a long record of participating in attempts to kill Castro, remains wanted in other countries on attempted murder and conspiracy charges.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry denounced "the terrorist mafia of Miami that has protected, financed and drafted plans" for the men, who were convicted in Panama this year of plotting to kill Castro during a 2000 visit by the Cuban president. The ministry later issued a formal announcement saying it had indefinitely suspended diplomatic relations with Panama for the "repugnant and treacherous action" in releasing the men.

"Those governments allowing passage or offering refuge to these terrorists will become accomplices in the actions," the ministry said in a veiled warning to Washington.

Panama's Caribbean port of Colon handles most Cuban food and cargo imports, and the break in the countries' relations could have severe implications for the communist island nation's trade and living standards.

Moscoso, whose government has maintained close ties with the Bush administration, said she had decided to pardon Posada, Gaspar Jimenez, Guillermo Novo and Pedro Remon to prevent any future leadership from extraditing the men after they served their sentences.

"We know that if they stay, they would face the possibility of being extradited to Venezuela or Cuba, where I am sure they would have been killed," Moscoso said at a news conference.

Cuban authorities warned Sunday that they would break diplomatic relations with Panama if Moscoso used her presidential powers to free the men.

Deeming the Cuban warning intrusive and arrogant, Moscoso recalled the Panamanian ambassador to Cuba on Monday and expelled the Cuban envoy to her country.

A Panamanian court in April sentenced Posada and Jimenez to eight years in prison for endangering public safety and falsifying documents. Novo and Remon received seven-year terms. During the case, the defendants claimed to be in Panama to help a Cuban general defect.

Posada, Remon and Novo have all been tried on previous charges of attempted assassination.

Novo told journalists upon his return here that "we lost four years [in jail] but we won because we beat Fidel Castro."

Remon appealed to other leaders in the Americas to emulate Moscoso's "condemnation of dictatorship."

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