RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Brazilian legislators and an international human-rights group are criticizing the repatriation of two Cuban boxers who'd abandoned their delegation to the Pan American Games, saying police spirited the pair out of Brazil under suspicious circumstances last Saturday.
Two-time Olympic bantamweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux, 26, and welterweight world champion Erislandy Lara, 24, were taken into police custody last Thursday on a resort beach in Araruama, Brazil, after disappearing two weeks before.
Although the pair had signed five-year contracts with the German company Arena Box-Promotion, they told police they wanted to go home, federal police investigator Felicio Laterca told McClatchy Newspapers before escorting the boxers to their chartered flight Saturday night.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro said the two would never fight again on the Cuban team.
"The athlete who abandons his delegation is like the soldier who abandons his comrades in the middle of combat," he wrote in an article published Wednesday, adding that Cuba might not send a boxing team to next year's Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Castro placed most of the blame on Lara, "who, as captain of the boxing team, still broke the rules and played directly into the hands of the mercenaries."
The speed with which the boxers left the country and their public silence while under police watch raise suspicions about what really happened, said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the director of the Americas division of the U.S.-based nonprofit group Human Rights Watch.
Vivanco called for Brazil's government to conduct a "full and fair" investigation into what he said was a "very, very unprecedented" episode. Before the boxers left, they spoke only to the police and declined comment when a McClatchy reporter approached them outside a federal police station in the city of Niteroi.
The Brazilian Justice Ministry said the two had been informed of their right to request political asylum in Brazil but that they'd chosen not to do so.
"(Brazil's government) should have made sure the full process was fully transparent and not just handled by the police," Vivanco said. "To resolve this behind closed doors in the middle of the night in a summary process where there's only one side of the story, it raises questions."
Brazilian legislators said they suspected that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had worked out an agreement with Castro to return the boxers. Lula's Workers' Party has historic ties to Castro's regime.
The Brazilian Senate's international relations committee has asked the justice and foreign ministers to publicly explain the Cubans' departure.
"Brazil delivered those people to their deaths," said Sen. Arthur Virgilio, the Senate leader of the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party. "If it wasn't a physical death, it was a psychological death. These boxers just wanted a normal life, and we sent them back to the bloody regime of Fidel Castro."
Two other Cubans — handball player Rafael Capote and gymnastics coach Lazaro Lamelas Ramirez — also left the delegation. An attorney with a refugee aid group in the city of Sao Paulo said two members of the Cuban delegation had applied for political asylum in Brazil.
Brazilian Sen. Eduardo Suplicy, of the Workers' Party, said he'd talked by telephone Wednesday to Lara's wife in Cuba, who said the boxer hadn't been harmed.
"I would like to have seen an interview (in Cuba) with Lara himself, because that would help calm many of my worries," Suplicy said. "I want to see this matter clarified in the quickest manner possible."
New details about the case have cast doubt on the account that the boxers gave Brazilian police.
The boxers said they'd been drugged and kidnapped July 20 by two German citizens who represented Arena Box-Promotion, causing them to miss their July 22 fights. They said they'd been moved around the Rio de Janeiro region before police spotted them last Thursday.
The Justice Ministry said, however, that the boxers had asked a fisherman in Araruama to call the police shortly before they were found, suggesting that they were giving themselves up to authorities. The owner of the guesthouse where the boxers stayed told a McClatchy reporter that their bags already had been packed when police arrived.
Ahmet Oner, Arena's chief executive officer, said the Cubans had chosen to defect but changed their minds out of fear for their families' safety.
"The pressure of Fidel Castro was just too great," Oner said. "They thought they could get out of Cuba, but now this is the end of their careers."