WASHINGTON — In a case that puts the Bush administration in a legal dilemma, Cuban-American groups demanded Tuesday that the Justice Department indict Fidel Castro — who no longer enjoys immunity as head of state — for the 1996 downing of two airplanes over international waters.
U.S. citizens Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre Jr. — a Marine and Vietnam War veteran — Mario de la Peua and permanent resident Pablo Morales, all members of a group called Brothers to the Rescue, were killed on Feb. 24, 1996, when their planes were shot down over the Straits of Florida.
On Tuesday, relatives of the four men met with Dan Fisk, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, and presented thousands of signatures supporting the petition for an indictment, as well as resolutions from several south Florida municipalities.
Some legal experts doubt that the Bush administration will issue an indictment because other countries might seize on the precedent to prosecute U.S. officials. But the relatives and their supporters were undeterred.
With several family members fighting back tears, Rafael Crespo, president of the Cuban American Veterans Association, vowed to go after Fidel and Raul Castro, who have acknowledged their roles in the shoot-downs.
"Therefore," he said, "we believe their declarations to be sufficient as grounds for their indictment."
The push coincides with Sunday's 12th anniversary of the event, which raised U.S.-Cuba tensions to their highest point since the Cuban missile crisis. Cuban-American groups have been frustrated by what they say is a lack of awareness of what transpired that day, as well as the Clinton and Bush administrations' failure to indict the Castro brothers.
To focus attention on the case, Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart has sponsored a resolution that has garnered 35 co-sponsors condemning the shoot-downs. Earlier this month, Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote Attorney General Michael Mukasey arguing for an indictment.
Relatives of the victims already have had some successes. In 2006, they were awarded $97 million in reparations from Cuba after U.S. laws were amended to allow the collection of countries' frozen assets.
In 2003, a U.S. grand jury indicted Cuban air force head Gen. Ruben Martinez Puente and brothers Lorenzo and Francisco Perez-Perez, the two MiG pilots involved.
But the family members say justice will be served only when they go up the Cuban chain of command to the Castro brothers. They also want the State Department to declare the incident a Cuban state act of terrorism.
Prosecutions of heads of state are legally intricate affairs around the world that are still being worked out, experts say. There are international precedents, most notably the arrest in London of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1990s and the extradition by Chile of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori to Lima. The U.S. government brought Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega before a court in Miami in 1989, though Noriega wasn't technically the head of state.
Having the United States indict Fidel Castro would dramatically ratchet up attention to the case, but experts warn that an indictment could haunt President Bush and other U.S. officials.
"The administration and most governments, whether Republican or Democratic, are not overjoyed about the possibility of former heads of state being hauled in the courts of other countries under the concept of universal jurisdiction," said Robert Goldman, an expert on international human rights law at American University.
"If we can make a claim to be able to haul into our courts Castro, then why can't another country attempt to haul (former Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld or Mr. Bush or (Vice President) Cheney?" he added.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director with Human Rights Watch, said other nations would perceive an indictment of Castro as a political persecution because it would have little practical impact — Castro is unlikely to submit to a U.S. court. In addition, the Bush administration lacks international credibility, given its position on torture and other abuses.
Fidel Castro has taken responsibility publicly for the shoot-downs in a news media interview, alleging that the planes had violated Cuba airspace and were over Cuban waters when they were brought down.