Michael Ratner is an attorney who works with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and coauthor, with Michael Steven Smith, of Che Guevara and the FBI (Ocean Press: Melbourne, 1997).
1. Even prior to the notoriety of the request for Assata’s extradition, Congress had included a request for the “expulsion of criminals from Cuba” in the Helms-Burton statute. Section 113 reads: “The president shall instruct all United States Government officials who engage in official contacts with the Cuban government to raise on a regular basis the extradition of or rendering to the United States of all persons residing in Cuba, who are sought by the United States Department of Justice for crimes.”
2. For some discussion of racial targeting, particularly by the New Jersey State troopers, see, for example, “Driving While Black,” Peter Noel, Village Voice, June 9, 1998, p.39; “Racial ‘Profiling’ at Crux of Inquiry into Shooting by Troopers,” John Kifner and David M. Herszenhorn, New York Times, May 8, 1998, p.81.
4. Article Vl of the treaty states: “A fugitive criminal shall not be surrendered if the offense in respect of which his surrender is demanded be of a political character, or if it is proved that the requisition for his surrender has, in fact, been made with a view to try or punish him for an offense of a political character.” Interestingly, after the revolution it was the United States that first invoked this “political offense” exception to shield two escaped murderers who had been convicted of killing a prominent member of the Cuban Communist Party. Ramos v. Diaz, 179 E Supp. 458 (1959).
5. Article Vl states: “If any question shall arise as to whether a case comes within the provisions of this article, the decision of the authorities of the government on which the demand for the surrender is made, or which may have granted the extradition shall be final.”
Recent, widely publicized attempts by the United States government to extradite Assata Shakur from Cuba began with NJ Governor Christine Todd Whitman’s March 1998 letters to Attorney General Janet Reno and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright requesting that they pressure Cuba to return Assata. Whitman asked that any lifting of the embargo with Cuba be conditioned on Assata’s return and that of 90 other claimed fugitives from the United States. Whitman also offered a $100,000 bounty to anyone who could bring her back. Whitman herself announced the reward on Radio Marti -a station set up by Congress to transmit to Cuba -and asked the Cuban people to help in the capture. Presumably the reward would be paid for Assata’s capture and return, dead or alive. Such a morally offensive offer is tantamount to a solicitation to kidnap or commit murder; it also violates the sovereignty of Cuba as well as international law. Imagine if Fidel Castro broadcast a radio message into the United States offering a similar reward for one of the many real terrorists the United States is shielding. It is likely Cuba would be bombed or invaded.
On April 2, Cuba forcefully turned down any request for Assata’s extradition. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Alejandro Gonzalez, said Assata was “a civil rights activist.” He stated that she would not be extradited, as the government of Cuba has sufficient reasons to disagree with the charges against her and fears that she might be the target of unfair treatment.” In other words, the Cuban government understands that Assata was railroaded: She was illegally stopped by racist New Jersey State police shot in the back with her hands in the air, tried by a jury inflamed by politicians and a press bent on her conviction.
The U.S. understands that Cuba has neither the intention nor the obligation to extradite Assata, yet in July 1998 the State Department insisted on her extradition, treating the request in a mocking, almost racist manner. When asked at a press conference about the extradition of Assata and others, spokesperson James Rubin replied: “There are several people involved here, and I’m fearing that I will mess up their names; but since they are prisoner-escapees, I’m not going to worry about it that much.[Laughs.] [Laughter.]
3. “Is it any wonder the Cuban government worries that Assata was or may not be treated fairly!
Rubin then details Assata’s alleged crime, and says there is a 1905 extradition treaty (amended in 1926) with Cuba, but it hasn’t “been invoked, presumably because the Castro government won’t abide by the treaties.”
An astute reporter then pointed out that “Cuba’s response generally is that extradition is a two-way street and that there are a number of people accused of murder here in the U.S. that Cuba would like back.” Rubin can make no meaningful response to the point; he can only mock Cuba by saying, “when there are murderers in Cuba, they send them to the United States… [and] if we have a convicted murderer, they would simply be returning these people to the United States.”
There are, however, both legal and political answers to the U.S. extradition request. Even assuming the treaty is still valid, it contains an absolute exception to extradition for crimes that are of a “political character.” 4. Assata’s claimed offense clearly fits within this exception and the Cuban government has said so. Moreover, the treaty states that this decision is solely that of the Cuban government and its determination is final. 5. There
would also seem to be serious questions regarding the United States’ continued reliance on this treaty after it has repudiated other treaties with Cuba, organized and supported the Playa Giron invasion, embargoed the country in an effort to strangle it economically, cut off diplomatic relations and labeled it a terrorist state.
But, for the United States political grandstanding, inconsistency, and decisions made for its own benefit are not unusual.
Even apart from her innocence, it is politically hypocritical for the United States to insist on Assata’s extradition or that of any other of the 90 so-called fugitives. If there is a place terrorists can call home, it is the United States. Its history is hardly honorable. It was a welcome home to many prominent Nazis, particularly scientists that the U.S. used in its own production of weapons of war. Today it gives refuge to criminals who have attacked and murdered scores if not hundreds of Cubans. Most notorious of these is Orlando Bosch, living in Miami, who was convicted of blowing up a Cubana airliner killing 76 people, including the young Cuban fencing team. And what of the agents of the CIA who planned and paid for numerous sabotage and terrorist attacks in Cuba?
But the U.S. is not only a home for Cuban terrorists. Living among us is Emanuel Constant, the former head of the Haitian paramilitary organization FRAPH; its members tortured and murdered hundreds in the aftermath of the 1991 coup in Haiti. During the coup, Constant was on the CIA payroll. After the coup, the U.S. labeled FRAPH terrorist, yet refused a Haitian extradition request, and the State Department stopped his deportation back to Haiti. And what of the Salvadoran General Jose Guillermo Garcia and the head of E1 Salvador’s national guard, General Vides Casanova, who according to the United Nations covered up and protected the murderers of the three nuns and lay worker in El Salvador.
They obtained political asylum and are living well in Palm Coast, Florida. The U.S. has laid out a welcome mat for other terrorists, including General Hector Gramajo, accused of killing as many as 10,000 Guatemalan Indians; General Prosper Avril, a former dictator of Haiti, responsible for the torture of opposition leaders; and Sintong Panjaitan, an Indonesian general, responsible for the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor that killed hundreds. But these are only a few terrorists who the U.S. has welcomed; scores more are probably unknown to the public, hidden in the U.S. after carrying out its bidding overseas.
Yet despite the hypocrisy of the United States and Cuba’s unwavering support for Assata and her innocence, this effort to pressure Cuba must be taken seriously by all who care about the cause of justice. Ideologues and opportunists in the U.S. Congress may try to condition more open and fair relations with Cuba on its agreement to extradite Assata and others who have been granted asylum. While Cuba would not acquiesce to such conditions, it could put Assata in an uncomfortable situation. So the fight for Assata and for Cuba must continue!”