Published: Sunday, January 4, 1998
WITNESS: SHOOTDOWN OF 4 PILOTS PLANNED
WAS CUBA'S ACTION PREMEDITATED?
Federal prosecutors have strong firsthand evidence to charge a fighter pilot and the Cuban government with plotting to assassinate four men shot down in an unarmed Brothers to the Rescue flight, an attorney said.
No criminal charges have been filed.
The attorney, Ralph Fernandez, said a Cuban refugee has information that the killings were premeditated and will go public with details if U.S. prosecutors don't take action on the case within 30 days.
The refugee, Adel Regalado Ulloa, worked for in tourism in Cuba, spending much of his time at Cuba's Jose Marti Airport where he witnessed practice shootdown runs, according to Fernandez.
``Regalado has a key to the vault, the information to unlock the door to establish that not only did Cuba assassinate those people, but they did it in a premeditated and evil fashion and somehow, somebody is manipulating this process to make sure that all this does not come out properly,'' Fernandez said in an interview Friday.
Fernandez is a Tampa defense attorney and former prosecutor who has worked with American intelligence for 12 years and long supported Cuban freedom fighters in their legal plight, always for free.
Four Miami-Dade men, three of them U.S. citizens, were killed when they were shot down in two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996 by a Cuban fighter jet over international waters.
The Brothers to the Rescue case has languished in limbo for nearly two years, Fernandez said.
``This is a simple case involving simple issues and tremendous evidence,'' Fernandez said. ``What greater witness in the world exists than someone who is telling the truth and wants nothing for it?''
The attorney was selective in what details of Regalado's story he would disclose. While he has no agreement or pact with prosecutors, Fernandez said he wants to give them ample time to act.
But if they don't move forward in 30 days, Regalado's story will be told, he said.
``I can't keep playing nice guy to the government,'' he said.
In July, Regalado was among the three Cuban refugees acquitted in less than an hour of air piracy charges by a federal jury in central Florida.
The trio was accused of hijacking a Polish-made Wilga aircraft demanding the pilot fly from Playas del Este near Havana to Florida. But the small plane ran out of fuel and crash-landed in the Gulf of Mexico about 30 miles west of Naples. The plane remains buried at sea.
``The plane they took was the practice plane for the Brothers to the Rescue practice run,'' Fernandez said.
The Cuban military used it to test the position of the MiG assault, five or six days before the shootdown, he said.
``What Regalado has is not hearsay knowledge. He was there. The Cubans practiced this before they did it,'' the attorney said.
The pilot in the practice run reportedly was Adolfo Perez Pantoja, the same pilot who crash-landed in the Gulf of Mexico.
The three others, Regalado, Leonardo Reyes Ramirez, 28, and Jose Roberto Bello Puente, 23, faced a minimum of 20 years in prison for air piracy.
The three said they weren't hijacking the plane, but were trying to defect, along with the pilot. Pantoja denied that he was part of a defection group and elected to return to Cuba.
U.S. immigration officials have resisted granting the men asylum even though jurors found the men innocent. Asylum also is granted when there's a well-founded fear of persecution.
Fernandez compared their case to the high-profile case of Cuban baseball star Orlando Hernandez who won asylum when he decided to defect.
``These three men are charged or to be charged in Cuba and executed -- it's not just that they can't play baseball anymore. These guys, wherever they are, will be hunted down. And they [U.S. officials] haven't decided yet if they face a well-founded fear of persecution. But on the (Hernandez) case, the State Department said yes, they have a well-founded fear of persecution because they can't play baseball anymore.''
In Washington, Bert Brandenburg, spokesman for the Justice Department, said late Friday guidelines do not permit comment on an investigation.
In Miami, federal prosecutors did not return telephone calls seeking reaction late Friday afternoon to comments by Fernandez.
On Dec. 17, a federal judge in Miami ruled the Cuban government should pay $188 million to relatives of the three Americans killed by the MiGs in international airspace.
Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, a seasoned jurist who has handled freedom fighter cases for nearly a decade, called the shootdown a ``monstrous act.''
Cuba ``in outrageous contempt for international law and basic human rights, murdered four human beings in international airspace,'' King said.