Cuba medical examiner testifies in US perjury case

AP News
Posted: Feb 24, 2011 3:58 PM
Cuba medical examiner testifies in US perjury case

Metal shards from an ashtray blown apart by a bomb flew across a Havana hotel lobby and sliced the throat of an Italian tourist, a Cuban medical examiner told the jury Thursday in the federal perjury trial of an ex-CIA agent accused of lying about planning the attack.

Ileana Vizcaino Dime, director of Cuba's state-run Institute of Forensic Medicine, testified against Luis Posada Carriles, an 83-year-old anti-communist considered Public Enemy No. 1 in his native Cuba, where his face is plastered on numerous billboards. Prosecutors say Posada planned a series of bombings in Cuba before sneaking into the U.S. in 2005.

Jurors appeared to be listening carefully as Dime detailed in monotonous, dry tones the exceedingly bloody 1997 death at the center of the U.S. government's case against Posada, who faces 11 counts of perjury, obstruction of justice in an anti-terrorism investigation and immigration fraud.

Posada admitted responsibility for the bombings to the New York Times in 1998, saying they were meant to cripple Cuban tourism but not kill anyone. He has since recanted those statements, however. In recent interviews with The Associated Press, he sidestepped questions about the bombings.

Vizcaino described the autopsy of 32-year-old Fabio di Celmo, an Italian tourist who was in the lobby bar of Havana's Copacabana Hotel on Sept. 4, 2007, when the bomb planted in a metal ashtray exploded. The blast sent metal shards from the waste-high ashtray flying, and pieces severed di Celmo's jugular.

"There was a massive loss of blood and profuse bleeding, the loss was irreversible and impossible to control," Vizcaino said and described two long, deep wounds across the victim's neck. "Death was inevitable. It was a violent death, a homicide."

Jurors winced when federal prosecutors showed graphic photos of di Celmo's corpse and a jagged metal fragment extracted from his neck.

That blast was one of nine that rocked hotels in Havana and the beach resort of Varadero between April and September 1997. A bomb also exploded at an iconic restaurant popular with tourists in the island's capital. Di Celmo was the only fatality, but about a dozen other people were wounded.

Posada is not on trial for the bombings, only for allegedly lying about them during immigration hearings in El Paso _ prompting the obstruction charges. The three prosecutors assigned to the case are from a Justice Department anti-terrorism unit in Washington.

Along with failing to take responsibility for the bombings, prosecutors say Posada lied about how he got into the U.S and about having a Guatemalan passport under a false name.

Vizciano testified that she has performed close to 1,000 autopsies and her office reports to Cuba's Ministry of Health _ not the powerful Interior Ministry. She is the second Cuban official to testify a rare show of cooperation between the U.S. and Cuban governments, but it hasn't all gone smoothly.

The defense called for a mistrial after receiving documents showing Lt. Col. Roberto Hernandez Caballero, an Interior Ministry investigator who headed an island task force on the bombings, also was a member of Cuban counter-intelligence. Posada's lawyers claimed Hernandez Caballero was a covert agent under orders to mislead the jury.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone declined to grant a mistrial, although she said prosecutors were slow to divulge Hernandez Caballero's true identity.

Posada spent two years in an immigration lockup, but was released in 2007 and has been living in Miami.

He worked for the CIA for 12 years, until 1976. He later served as head of intelligence for Venezuela's government. He was acquitted by a Venezuelan military tribunal in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner, but escaped from prison before a civilian retrial.

In the 1980s, Posada helped support U.S.-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua. He was arrested in Panama amid a plot to kill Fidel Castro during a visit there in 2000. He received a presidential pardon in 2004 and turned up in U.S. territory the following March. Cuba and Venezuela would like to try Posada for the hotel bombings or the 1976 airliner bombing, but a U.S. immigration judge has ruled he can't be deported to either country for fear he could be tortured.