Among those attending the trial this week in Panama City are families of victims of previous terrorist acts by the accused, as well as the Venezuelan ambassador to Panama, Claudio Grenado, whose country is interested in the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles to complete serving a prison sentence there. Posada Carriles was convicted of the sabotage deaths of 73 passengers aboard a Cubana airliner in October 1976. He escaped from a Caracas prison in 1985 and was since sought by Venezuelan authorities for nearly 20 years.
After being delayed three times, the trial finally got underway Monday with a reading of statements from the accused, all of whom declared their innocence. In previous rulings, courts found there wasn’t enough evidence to try the defendant for attempted murder, which would carry a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Also charged in the case are two Panamanians, Cesar Matamoros, and Posada Carriles’ driver, Jose Hurtado. The defendants have denied any involvement in the plot to kill Castro, but Panamanian authorities found explosives hidden outside Panama City and say they have evidence linking the explosives to Posada and the others. The Panamanian federal attorney, Arquimides Saenz and other lawyers presented evidence against the suspects
By the second day of the trial in Panama, the Panamanian federal attorney Arquimides Saenz is reported as saying that there shouldn’t be any clemency for Luis Posada Carriles, Gaspar Jimenez Escobedo, Guillermo Novo Sampol, and Pedro Remon, who have been charged with conspiracy, possessing explosives, and endangering the public safety. In Panama, an explosives conviction carries a maximum penalty of 7 years in prison, while the lesser changes carry sentences of 1 to 3 and 2 to 5 years behind bars.
On Wednesday, the judge heard from two of the lawyers presenting the case against the alleged plotters.
Radio Havana Cuba Talking to Jean-Guy Allard in Panama
[BD (RHC)] Jean-Guy, you’re there in Panama, you’re right at the heart of what’s going on at the heart of this trial. Please, can you give me some idea of the atmosphere that’s in the court and outside the court?
[JGA] Well, let me begin by describing something really interesting happening under my eyes at this exact moment. I’m on the parking lot of the court building, which is near the famous Panama Canal Panama–and in the middle of parking lot there is a big tree, and under the big tree, there is José Gonzalez Rodriguez. Do you have an idea of who Jose Gonzalez Rodriguez is?
[BD] No, no. Tell me.
[JGA] Well, let me tell you that this guy lives in the US, a Cuban American, who was arrested in 1971 with arms and explosives, and who finally was never condemned for anything, as is usual in the United States in these types of cases of terrorism against Cuba. He was a leader– still is –of Alpha 66. They’re probably still the most infamous terrorist group from Miami. It is really strange to be at the trial of six terrorists–well, five terrorists and their Panamanian chauffeur–and to see the room half full of Cuban-American terrorists from Miami who came here as a delegation, among them people who have lived all their lives taking part in terrorist activities. It is really more than a little strange.
All the defendants in this trial have extensive criminal records going back at least to the US-run Bay of Pigs, including Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative, who was acquitted in a bombing trial in Venezuela but remained imprisoned until he escaped in 1985. He has acknowledged organizing several Cuban hotel bombings that killed an Italian tourist and injured 11 other people in 1997. Pedro Remon, who is 57, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in 1986 in the March 1980 attempted murder of Cuba’s former delegate to the United Nations, and to an attempted bombing of the Cuban United Nations mission in December 1979.
[BD] The trial was expected to last for a week. Why did it finish up after three days?
[JGA] The trial was very short in the end because it is not a trial before a jury. The decision will be taken by one judge alone and that decision is mostly based on the reports made by the state attorney, whose investigation comprises 44 books of reports containing 12000 pages that were placed right in front of the judge here in the courtroom. Until now, the defense has presented almost no arguments to counteract the prosecution arguments in any way. Attorney Arquimides Saenz, who is a young attorney with a brilliant reputation, has been very confident and well-prepared for this case. When he finally gave his final address, it was very impressive to see how organized he was the way he knew his case, I just don’t see Rogelio Cruz, the defense lawyer can in any way break this wall of evidence that Arquimides Saenz has presented.
[BD] So the prosecution put the case on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the, and now it starts with the defense. Is that the way it is now?
[JGA] On the first and second day the procedure here is that if one side or the other want to ask any of the persons who testified for the state attorney to be present in court, they can ask them to be appear for questioning to find out some more details or to confirm what is already is stated in the reports of the attorney. You see, the State Attorney has interrogated tens of people linked with the case. If you are the defense attorney, maybe you might want to question some of the prosecution witnesses to find some holes or something in his declaration, in his statement, that can be in favor of your client.
But the defense attorney only asked a few people to appear and quickly renounced their testimony. This is the reason everything was so quick. So that by the afternoon of the second day everybody from the defense and the general attorney office and also from the lawyers representing popular organizations here in Panama; and the judge decided altogether to request that no more people testify.
Judge Jose Hoo Justiniani is expected to give his verdict within 30 days