After deliberating for just three hours, a Texas jury on Friday acquitted a former Cuban-born CIA operative of all charges relating to accusations that he lied to U.S. immigration officials.
Luis Posada Carriles, 83, broke out in a huge grin when the verdict – which came after 13 weeks of testimony -- was read and hugged all three of his attorneys simultaneously. One of the attorneys broke down in tears.
Across the aisle, the federal prosecutors who painstakingly built their case during the first 11 weeks by calling 23 witnesses, sat still.
"Anytime a jury has a case, there's no telling what they might do. But we respect the jury's decision," Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Reardon said after the hearing.
Known in the Cuban exile community as “El Bambi,” Posada, who spent decades working to destabilize communist Latin American governments, often with Washington's backing, is Public Enemy No. 1 in his homeland and is considered ex-President Fidel Castro's nemesis.
"We expected the trial to end with an acquittal," said Pepe Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, the nation's most influential Cuban exile lobby.
"We've been following the trial, and the prosecution didn't really have the evidence to back up Posada-Carriles's supposed lies," said Hernandez from CANF's offices in Florida. "I hope that with this verdict, the persecution will end of a man who all his life has served United States interests."
"It's inexcusable that a man who now is at the twilight of his life would be dragged through a trial to answer to the Castro dictatorship's wishes," Hernandez said. "We hope the United States will not continue being an echo chamber for the Cuban dictatorship."
Cuba's state-run site www.cubadebate.cu had the verdict as its central item soon after it was announced. It said that Carriles had “faced a trial not for terrorism, but for having lied to immigration authorities.”
“Despite millions of pieces of evidence and numerous witnesses concerning his terrorist activities," it continued, "Posada Carriles has enjoyed life as a free man – and even has been celebrated in Miami as a hero -- in a country that claims that its global enemy is terrorism.”
Prosecutors said Posada lied to immigration officials about how he sneaked into the U.S. in 2005 and by denying he masterminded a series of hotel bombings in Cuba in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist and wounded 12 other people.
Posada said in a 1998 interview with The New York Times that he planned the attacks, but later recanted that.
The defense, which called just eight witnesses over eight days, maintained Posada should have been allowed to retire a hero in Miami for his service to the country during the darkest days of the cold war. Posada spent nearly two years in immigration detention centers but was released in 2007 and had been living in Miami.
Posada participated in the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion, served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was a CIA operative until 1976. He then moved to Venezuela and served as head of that country's intelligence service. Also in 1976, he was arrested for planning the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Posada was acquitted by a military tribunal, but escaped from prison while still facing a civilian trial.
He helped the U.S. funnel support to Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s, and, in 2000, was arrested in Panama amid a plot to kill Castro during a summit there. He was pardoned by Panama's president in 2004 and turned up in the U.S. the following March.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.