Cuban dictator Fidel Castro may be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to an exile group for the shoot-down of its planes by Cuban MiG fighter jets.

A federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., heard testimony yesterday in the damages phase of a lawsuit that seeks in excess of $40 million.

Judicial Watch, the public-interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption and abuse, filed the lawsuit last May against Castro, the Republic of Cuba and Castro’s brother, Raul, who is the former director of the Cuban Secret Services and commander in chief of the Cuban Air Force.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jos? Basulto, founder and president of the Miami-based humanitarian group Brothers To The Rescue, or BTTR.

“Castro will pay for his murderous acts,” said Judicial Watch Chairman and General Counsel Larry Klayman. “Unlike the U.S. government, Judicial Watch is taking action against Castro for this blatant terrorist attack against American citizens.”

Basulto is a survivor of the Feb. 24, 1996, attack by Cuban Air Force fighter jets on three unarmed, civilian search-and-rescue aircraft operated by BTTR in international airspace over the Florida Straits. Two aircraft were shot down by Castro’s MiGs, resulting in the deaths of Armando Alejandre Jr., Mario De La Pena, Carlos Costa and Pablo Morales.

Brothers to the Rescue pilots shot down by Cuban MiGs in 1996.

Basulto piloted the third Cessna that escaped the attack. Three others on board also survived.

“The aim was to kill me,” Basulto told WorldNetDaily. “We were very threatening to Castro.”

WorldNetDaily has reported testimony offered in a June 2001 trial of a Cuban spy network that infiltrated exile groups in Miami, including BTTR, provided evidence the BTTR aviators were assassinated.

Double agent Juan Pablo Roque had become a BTTR pilot and supplied information to the Cuban government as well as the FBI. Roque was part of the Cuban Intelligence Service’s “Wasp Network.” Five members of this espionage ring were convicted of 23 espionage-related charges.

BTTR is a humanitarian, pro-democracy organization that advocates the non-violent establishment of a democracy in Cuba. BTTR volunteers fly search-and-rescue missions for Cuban refugees. Since 1991, BTTR has saved the lives of over 4,200 Cubans seeking to cross the Florida Straits in search of
freedom from communist Cuba. BTTR has flown close to 2,000 missions over the area of the 1996 shoot-down.

The incident sparked widespread condemnation of the Cuban government, which claimed at the time the planes were in Cuban airspace.

Castro subsequently admitted to ordering the shoot-down.

“I take full responsibility for what took place,” Time magazine quotes him as saying in a Mar. 11, 1996, article.

Castro repeated this confession in a Sept. 3, 1996, interview with CBS News anchor Dan Rather.

On its website, BTTR links to a recording of the MiGs pilots’ radio communications during the shoot-down.

Citing “expert independent sources and the U.S. government,” BTTR claims to have enough evidence to prove that the Clinton-Gore administration had prior knowledge of the attack, consented to the shoot-down, collaborated with Castro’s Cuba to make the crime possible and covered up its own participation by using misinformation and efforts to remove evidence and potential witnesses.

In 1997, families of three of the four victims successfully sued and were awarded $188 million in damages paid from Cuban government assets frozen in U.S. banks. The judge in that case called the attack an act of terrorism.

The Judicial Watch suit was filed under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which enables suits for money damages against foreign states that cause “personal injury or death that was caused by an act of …extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage… or the provision of material support or
resources for such an act.”

The U.S. designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1990. Cuba loses its immunity because of that, according to Klayman.

The Judicial Watch complaint maintains Castro and his brother are known to collaborate with other terrorists and terrorist states, such as Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and the Irish Republican Army.

“[Deputy Defense Secretary] Paul Wolfowitz and everybody admits that he’s got bio-chemical labs on his island and that he assists Iran, Iraq and Libya in terrorist activities. He’s sponsoring the FARC in Colombia. He’s in bed with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. He’s a bigger problem than he was 20 years ago,” Klayman said.

The suit never went to trial. Last month, Basulto won by default because neither Castro nor his legal representatives responded to the legal action by the given deadline.

Cuba maintains U.S. courts have no jurisdiction.

This morning, Basulto and his wife provided testimony of their pain and suffering over Basulto being an assassination target and over the wrongful death of the BTTR brothers.

The verdict on the size of the award is expected in a few months.

“I hope [the suit] accomplishes first of all another public indictment of Castro for what he’s done so he appears as the criminal and terrorist he is,” Basulto told WND.

Basulto plans to use the damages award to “help bring freedom” to Cuba. He said he will disclose the details of plans to help buttress an opposition movement in Cuba when the verdict comes in.

Klayman plans to enforce the award against the frozen assets of the Cuban government in the U.S. and said, if necessary, he would attach accounts of American companies that are doing business with Castro – like travel agencies.

“We’re trying Castro for acts of terrorism. He’s even worse than Saddam Hussein, and the president needs to do something about him,” Klayman told WND. “We’re not only trying to get justice for Jose Basulto but we’re sending a message to the president that Castro should be next.”

Judicial Watch also filed a criminal complaint against Castro and his brother in Brussels, Belgium, for crimes against humanity.

Previous stories:

Media ignore Cuban espionage

‘Wasp Network’ stung in Miami

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