U.S. Refuses to Classify Alleged Bomber as Terrorist

Thirty years ago Friday, a Cuban airliner blew up in mid-air, killing all 73 people aboard. U.S. officials later concluded that a violently anti-Castro Cuban exile named Luis Posada Carriles helped plan the bombing. But Thursday the Justice Department refused to classify Posada, who is in jail for immigration violations, as a terrorist.

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Thirty years ago today, a Cuban airliner blew up in midair, killing all 73 people onboard. U.S. officials later concluded that a violently anti-Castro Cuban exile named Luis Posada Carriles helped to plan this bombing. But yesterday the Justice Department refused to classify Posada as a terrorist, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: Among the passengers on the Cubana flight on October 6,1976, was a 19-year-old student from Guyana named Raymond Persaud. Raymond had just been awarded a scholarship from his government to attend medical school in Cuba. And the night before he left, his whole family celebrated. His sister Roseanne was 11 years old at the time.

Ms. ROSEANNE NENNINGER (Sister of Raymond Persaud): We had a very big part for him. And my father borrowed all the chairs from our local church and there were over a hundred people coming to celebrate just a wonderful opportunity for him starting a life as a medical student.

GJELTEN: After Guyana, the Cubana stopped in Trinidad, and then in Barbados, before heading to Havana. About 20 minutes after leaving Barbados, an explosion ripped through the plane. The pilot immediately radioed the Barbados control tower.

(Soundbite of flight recording)

Unidentified Man: We've had an explosion and we areā€¦

GJELTEN: We've had an explosion and we are descending immediately, the pilot said. Not long after, a woman from the Guyanese government showed up at the Persaud's home.

Ms. NENNINGER: She specifically said to my mom and dad, make sure that you're sitting. And then she said that she thinks that the plane went down. And just the shrieks out of my mom - I still hear it in my voice.

GJELTEN: Investigators concluded that two Venezuelan men put a time bomb on the plane and then got off in Barbados. Declassified U.S. government documents suggest the men were associates of Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile who had organized previous attacks against Fidel Castro's regime. The documents were uncovered by the non-profit National Security Archive, where Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project.

Mr. PETER KORNBLUH (Director, Cuban Documentation Project, National Security Archive): The two people who were arrested and convicted for putting the bomb on the plane both worked for Luis Posada. The very first phone call they made after the plane went into the ocean was to Posada's office in Venezuela.

GJELTEN: In subsequent years, Posada, by his own admission, engaged in a number of violent acts targeting the Castro regime. Now 79, he was arrested in the spring of 2005 for entering the United States illegally and he remains imprisoned in El Paso, Texas.

Last month, however, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the immigration charges alone do not justify Posada's continued detention. The judge pointed out that the Justice Department has not yet officially labeled Luis Posada a terrorist, a classification that would have justified his indefinite detention under the terms of the Patriot Act.

Yesterday the Justice Department objected to the judge's ruling, saying Posada should remain in prison in part because his release would be a danger to the community. But the department stopped short of labeling a Posada a terrorist.

To some members of the influential Cuban American community, Posada remains a hero for his dedication to fighting Fidel Castro. But Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive says the Bush administration needs to have a single standard for defining terrorists, a standard that is independent of domestic political considerations.

Mr. KORNBLUH: If Luis Posada Carriles does not meet the definition of a terrorist, it is hard to imagine who does. He has been involved again and again over the last 40 years in acts of violence that have cost dozens if not hundreds of innocent lives.

GJELTEN: Posada has consistently said he was not responsible for the Cubana bombing and his lawyer is arguing that he should now be set free.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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