HAVANA (AP) — Cuba said Monday that it has a right to grant asylum to U.S. fugitives, the clearest sign yet that the communist government has no intention of extraditing America's most-wanted woman despite the warming of bilateral ties.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has urged President Barack Obama to demand the return of fugitive Joanne Chesimard before restoring full relations under a historic detente announced by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro last week.
Chesimard was granted asylum by Fidel Castro after she escaped from the prison where she was serving a sentence for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973 during a gunbattle after being stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Asked if returning fugitives was open to negotiation, Cuba's head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, told The Associated Press that "every nation has sovereign and legitimate rights to grant political asylum to people it considers to have been persecuted. ... That's a legitimate right."
"We've explained to the U.S. government in the past that there are some people living in Cuba to whom Cuba has legitimately granted political asylum," Vidal said.
"There's no extradition treaty in effect between Cuba and the U.S.," she added.
In a letter to the White House made public Sunday, Christie said Cuba's asylum for Chesimard, who has changed her name to Assata Shakur, was "an affront to every resident of our state, our country, and in particular, the men and women of the New Jersey State Police, who have tirelessly tried to bring this killer back to justice."
Later Monday, during a live interview with a local television anchor, Christie responded to Vidal's statement that Cuba has the right to grant to political asylum to those who have been persecuted.
"So Joanne Chesimard, a cold-blooded cop-killer, convicted by a jury of her peers, in what is without question the fairest and most just criminal justice system in the world — certainly much more just than anything that's happened in Cuba under the Castro brothers. She is now, according to an official of the Cuban government, persecuted," he said.
He added, "these thugs in Cuba have given her political asylum for 30 years. It's unacceptable."
The first woman ever placed on the FBI's most-wanted terrorist list was living so openly in Havana that her number was listed in the phone book.
The FBI and the New Jersey State Police have offered a $2 million reward for information leading to Shakur's capture.
Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council, said the Obama administration will "continue to press in our engagement with the Cuban government for the return of U.S. fugitives in Cuba to pursue justice for the victims of their crimes."
Several infamous convicts and suspects in high-profile American cases live openly in Cuba, as are others convicted of less serious crimes. Among these are a woman convicted of killing a police officer four decades ago, a man sought for a 31-year-old armed robbery, airplane hijackers and dozens of people accused of Medicare and insurance fraud.
Cuba occasionally returns people convicted or suspected of committing crimes in the U.S., but it doesn't observe traditional extradition and refuses to send anyone back for a crime Havana considers political in nature, according to the State Department.
The Castro government's frequent position on returning fugitives has been to ask for the U.S. to return people wanted in Cuba.
"We've reminded the U.S. government that in its country they've given shelter to dozens and dozens of Cuban citizens," Vidal said. "Some of them accused of horrible crimes, some accused of terrorism, murder and kidnapping, and in every case the U.S. government has decided to welcome them."
In Cuba's first detailed public response to Obama's historic announcement last week, Vidal said Cuba is open to all of Obama's moves to improve relations and strengthen private enterprise and civil society on the island. That includes U.S. equipment to improve the Cuban Internet and U.S. exports to Cuba's new class of private business owners.
"Our president has said we welcome President Obama's decision to introduce the most significant changes in relations with Cuba in 54 years," Vidal said. "That includes the entire package."
Cuba has historically imposed heavy regulations on the Internet and private business as it has blamed the U.S. embargo for the problems of the island's stagnant economy.
Vidal said the U.S. has been to blame for Cuba's economic problems, which include crumbling infrastructure, low levels of foreign investment and rates of Internet access that are among the lowest in the world. The opening is an opportunity to show what the country can do unshackled, she said.
"Look back. When have you seen a negative response to the American government removing any type of restriction?" Vidal said. "What we say is, 'Get rid of the excuse and put us to the test!'"
Cuba is waiting to see exactly how the Obama administration will implement the changes, she said.
Obama's announcement included a very general list of reforms and left a series of open questions about how far the U.S. could go to create deeper economic ties with Cuba. The Commerce and Treasury departments are expected to begin publishing details of the new measures in coming weeks, changes that will include relaxation of the stringent rules governing American travel to Cuba.
Vidal said Cuba would only know how it would manage its end of the new relationship once the American government plan was clearer.
"We have to see how we are going to implement things," she said.
Associated Press reporter Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.
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