MIAMI — Luis Posada Carriles has been accused of killing 73 people by bombing a Cuban airliner, plotting to kill Fidel Castro by blowing up a jam-packed auditorium in Panama, and masterminding a string of blasts in Havana that killed an Italian tourist.
But when the Cuban exile goes on trial Monday in a federal court in Texas, he will be facing only 11 counts of lying under oath and related offenses — mostly because he denied to U.S. immigration officials any role in the Havana blasts.
The Cuban and Venezuelan governments say the lowly charges show that the United States is coddling a world-class terrorist. Others say the charges of perjury, rather thanterrorism or murder, are akin to trying Al Capone for tax evasion: maybe lowly, but effective.
"They wisely chose a perjury case,'' said Thomas Scott, a former federal judge and U.S. attorney in Miami. "On that issue, they've got a reasonable shot of conviction.''
The case has been five years in the making, since the CIA-trained explosives expert and inveterate hatcher of anti-Castro plots turned up in Miami in 2005. If convicted, Posada, who is 82 years old, could get from five to eight years in prison.
Many of the 560 filings in the case so far remain sealed from public view including items related to Posada's CIA history and a taped interview he gave to author Ann Louise Bardach. Justice Department attorneys asked for the seals.
But it's clear that Bardach, who was subpoenaed by prosecutors, will be a critical witness. Her role: To authenticate her recordings of a 1998 interview with Posada in which he allegedly confessed to orchestrating the Havana blasts.
A contract writer for The New York Times, Bardach fought the government subpoenas in an attempt to avoid turning over the tapes and testifying about them in court. "It's either testify or go to jail,'' she said last week.
Bardach and Times staff writer Larry Rohter wrote a series of stories in 1998 about militant Cuban exiles, including one reporting that Posada had confessed in the taped interview to the bombings that hit Havana tourist spots in 1997, killing an Italian man.
"We didn't want to hurt anybody,'' the story quoted Posada as saying. "We just wanted to make a big scandal so that the tourists don't come anymore.''
During interviews with U.S. immigration officials in 2005, however, Posada denied he had confessed to Bardach and claimed that he had misheard some of her questions and misspoke in some of his answers because his English was not fluent.
"I am saying that is not true,'' Posada said in Spanish when he gave sworn testimony in El Paso during one of several hearings related to his request for asylum and efforts to fight a deportation order against him.
Prosecutors don't have to prove he was responsible for the Havana blasts. They need only show that there was a crime, that Posada played some part in it, and that he lied when he denied any role in the bombings.
Toward that end, prosecutors plan to present 3,500 pages of Cuban and Guatemalan government reports on the Havana bombings and call Cuban police officers as witnesses. Also expected to testify is a Cuban American who claims Posada handled explosives for the Havana blasts in an office they shared in Guatemala City.
In addition, FBI agents have records showing about $19,000 in wire transfers from Cuban exiles in New Jersey to Posada in El Salvador and Guatemala between October 1996 and January 1998. The FBI alleges the money was used to finance the bombings.
In a victory for the defense, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone denied a prosecution request for permission to travel to Havana to depose two Salvadoran men, jailed in Cuba, who claim that Posada paid them to set off the bombs.
But the bulk of the evidence would seem to pose a daunting challenge for his defense. Yet Posada's Miami attorney, Arturo V. Hernandez, remained upbeat last week.
"My client is innocent of every single count of this indictment,'' Hernandez said. "The tapes, together with the other evidence in the case, are going to show that.''
Hernandez has made it clear he will attack Bardach's New York Times reports, the U.S. government transcriptions of Posada's comments to Bardach and the immigration officials, and the evidence obtained by prosecutors from the Cuban government.
In a motion last month, he alleged that Cuba regularly lies to suit its needs and noted that officials of a U.N. agency that investigated the killing of four Brothers to the Rescue members in 1996 concluded Havana had doctored some of the evidence.
Whatever the outcome of the trial, it may well be the final chapter in the life of Posada. who will be 83 next month and is reported to be in ill health.
Cuba and Venezuela accused him in the 1976 bombing of a Cubana de Aviacion plane in which 73 people died. A Venezuelan court acquitted him, but a new trial was ordered and in 1985 he escaped from prison and turned up in El Salvador under false identities.
He helped in the network Marine Col. Oliver North ran to provide supplies to the contra rebels who were fighting to topple the Sandinista government in Nicaragua until one of the network's planes was shot down in 1986 in an incident that gave rise to the Iran-contra scandal. His role in the network became part of the Senate's Iran-contra investigation.
In 2000 he was arrested in Panama in connection with a plot to kill Castro with a bomb during a speech at a Panama City university. Convicted on a lesser charge and sentenced to eight years, he was pardoned after four and returned to El Salvador.
He has denied both the Cubana de Aviacion and Panama allegations.
Posada turned up in Miami in 2005 and held a very public news conference. Angry immigration authorities arrested him and took him to El Paso, where he was questioned under oath about the Havana blasts and how he had entered the United States.
He claimed he had crossed Mexico's land border with Texas and then traveled by bus to Miami. Prosecutors alleged that Cuban exiles transported him by boat from Mexico to South Florida, and charged him in 2007 with lying about how he entered the country.
Cardone threw out the indictment, condemning authorities for using Posada's immigration proceedings as a "pretext for a criminal investigation'' to gather alleged terrorist evidence on him. Her ruling was overturned on appeal, and in 2009 prosecutors again charged Posada with lying about his entry into the country as well as the Havana bombings.
Hernandez said he expects the perjury trial to last from four to eight weeks, depending on the number of witnesses to be presented. Security will be tight because both critics and supporters of Posada plan to stage demonstrations near the courthouse.
On Sunday, former U.S. Attorney Ramsey Clark and Jose Pertierra, a U.S. lawyer who represents the Venezuelan government, will stage a "people's tribunal'' in El Paso to condemn Posada and demand his extradition to Venezuela or Cuba.