Monday, September 11, 2006

Two Cuban terrorists plead guilty to weapons charge

The Associated Press

Published: September 11, 2006

MIAMI A prominent Cuban exile who virulently opposes the communist government of President Fidel Castro pleaded guilty Monday to weapons charges arising from seizures last year of machine guns, a grenade launcher and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Santiago Alvarez, 65, a wealthy developer and key benefactor of jailed Cuban terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, pleaded guilty to a single criminal conspiracy charge. Alvarez's longtime employee, 64-year-old Osvaldo Mitat, also pleaded guilty.

Their pleas came a day before jury selection was scheduled to begin for a trial before a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale. Alvarez and Mitat had both faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the original six-count indictment.

Under the plea deal, each now faces up to five years behind bars when they are sentenced by U.S. District Judge James Cohn on Nov. 14.

"I think both sides believe it's a just result," said Alvarez's attorney Kendall Coffey. "It recognizes that they are enemies of Castro, not the United States. But even patriots are accountable."

Prosecutors did not immediately comment on the plea agreement.

Alvarez is a longtime associate of Posada, a former CIA operative who is accused by the Cuban and Venezuelan governments with masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner in which 73 people died. Alvarez arranged for travel documents for Posada and helped him come out of hiding in Miami in May 2005, even staging a press conference for the Cuban militant.

Posada, 78, is now in U.S. immigration custody in Texas and has been ordered deported from the United States, but no country has been willing to accept him. Posada's lawyers argue that he should be released to his family in Miami.

Alvarez and Mitat were arrested in November after an informant tipped the FBI that a large cooler full of military-style weapons was being transported from apartments in Broward County owned by Alvarez to Mitat in Miami.

Later, investigators discovered more weaponry and ammunition at the apartment complexes and on Guinchos Cay, Bahamas, an island about 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Cuba that was linked to Alvarez. That island arsenal included grenades, grenade launchers and about 5 pounds (2.25 kilograms) of powerful C-4 plastic explosives.

Prosecutors had said those discoveries showed that Alvarez was actively involved in procuring weapons for an attempt by some Cuban exiles in Miami to topple the Castro government by force.

Documents discovered at Alvarez's office showed that he financially supported Posada during his trial and imprisonment for an alleged Castro assassination attempt in Panama in 2000. Posada was later pardoned by Panama's president.

Lawyers for Alvarez and Mitat had fought to have the case moved from Broward County, where there are relatively few Cuban-Americans, to Miami-Dade where about 800,000 of them live and many oppose Castro. But Cohn rejected that effort, agreeing with prosecutors that a fair jury could be selected in Fort Lauderdale.

Coffey declined to speculate on whether a plea deal would have been reached had Cohn ruled the other way.

"We'll never know, but my sense is that this is a fair outome," he said. "We're not here to complain."

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