Immigration agents have arrested a Cuban man on suspicion of being a torturer -- a charge strongly denied by his lawyer and family, who say he fled Cuba to escape the Castro regime.
BY ALFONSO CHARDY
Federal immigration agents have arrested a Cuban man in Miami on suspicion he may have supervised a team of torturers who targeted dissidents opposed to Fidel Castro -- a charge strongly denied by his attorney.
Jorge Felipe de Cárdenas Agostini, 46, was picked up June 8 at his home in Miami and taken to the Krome detention center in West Miami-Dade, where he is in deportation proceedings, according to officials familiar with the case. Cubans, however, are rarely deported because the Cuban government generally refuses to take exiles back.
De Cárdenas Agostini is the second Cuban arrested under a program begun in 2000 to track down foreign torture suspects living in the United States. The first was Eriberto Mederos, who was accused of having tortured anti-Castro political prisoners held at a psychiatric hospital in Cuba in the 1970s. He died in 2002, not long after a jury convicted him of lying on his citizenship application.
De Cárdenas Agostini is the nephew of Jorge de Cárdenas, a longtime lobbyist and political strategist charged with embezzlement, witness tampering and bribery during a Miami corruption scandal in the 1990s.
Jorge de Cárdenas pleaded guilty in 1997 to one count of obstructing justice, and was sentenced to one year in federal prison. After his release, he was sent to Krome to face possible deportation, but was released in 1999.
During deportation proceedings for Jorge de Cárdenas, the lobbyist, de Cárdenas Agostini testified about political conditions in Cuba in a bid to preempt his uncle's possible deportation.
Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami, said de Cárdenas Agostini was detained because he was ''suspected of engaging in persecution on behalf of the Cuban government.'' Gonzalez, however, said she could not release details.
But sources familiar with the government's case said that during the immigration court proceeding, de Cárdenas Agostini indicated that he worked for an intelligence unit and had supervised a team that allegedly tortured dissidents.
The de Cárdenas family referred calls to Linda Osberg-Braun, de Cárdenas Agostini's immigration attorney. She defended her client, saying he never tortured anyone or oversaw any torture unit.
''Absolutely not,'' Osberg-Braun said. ``My client did not supervise a team of torturers. He was not involved in the persecution of others in any kind of way. They have mangled my client's testimony.''
Osberg-Braun said de Cárdenas Agostini was only trying to help his uncle, explaining what would happen to him were he to be returned to Cuba. She said that, on the contrary, her client worked to restore human rights in Cuba after he was expelled from the government in 1989.
''His only mistake was trying to help his uncle,'' Osberg-Braun said.
She said the CIA debriefed her client after his arrival in the United States. ''He revealed all his activities both when he was part of the Cuban government and after he was expelled,'' she said. ``I can't believe the CIA would not have missed any of my client's activities and they know he is not a persecutor of others, and they knew it in 1996 when they thoroughly debriefed him.''
However, Osberg-Braun would not say precisely what her client said in testimony.
Friends of de Cardenas Agostini who asked not to be identified said the arrest and allegations are a terrible mistake. They said he fled Cuba to escape the Castro regime because he was once associated with a Cuban general who was executed in 1989. These people said de Cárdenas Agostini testified merely to try to prevent his uncle's deportation -- never expecting that his own testimony would later be used against him.
They said he talked about having served at the Ministry of the Interior and working with Gen. Antonio de la Guardia, executed after drug-trafficking trials of him and Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, also executed.
Some experts on Cuban affairs believe the charges against Ochoa and de la Guardia were trumped up and that the executions were actually a purge of popular officers who might have posed a political threat to Castro.
De Cárdenas Agostini left Cuba in 1995 and arrived in the United States a year later through the Texas border.