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U.S. bill gives terrorism victims money but 'no justice'

By Tom Carter
October 24, 2000

The pilot who survived a Cuban government attack on his U.S. civilian plane in 1996 said yesterday that a bill passed this month allowing U.S. victims of state-sponsored terrorism to collect monetary damages is good but does not go far enough.

"We are happy for the families who are getting the money, but money cannot bring back the men who died. There will be no justice for them until Fidel Castro is indicted for murder," said Jose Basulto, the Cuban-American president of the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue humanitarian organization.

On Feb. 24, 1996, Mr. Basulto narrowly escaped death when two Cuban MiGs flew into international airspace and shot down two unarmed Cessna airplanes, which were searching for Cuban rafters. The unprovoked attack killed four men, three of whom were U.S. citizens.

Under a 1996 anti-terrorism law, the families of the three American victims sued Cuba in U.S. courts. They won and were awarded nearly $50 million in damages.

Mr. Basulto was not a party in the lawsuit and will not collect any damages.

But until the passage of the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act this month, the victims could not collect. When President Clinton signs the bill, as expected, the families will be able to collect.

"Fidel Castro and the leaders of state-sponsored terrorism must take responsibility for their acts of terror and know that the United States government will not tolerate it," said Sen. Connie Mack, Florida Republican and a sponsor of the bill guaranteeing payment. "Terrorists will pay the price for their acts of terror, not American victims."

Rep. Bill McCollum, Florida Republican, and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, also sponsored the bill.

Yesterday, in retaliation for the measure, Cuba slapped a 10 percent tax on all telephone transmissions between Cuba and the United States. Cuba warned that phone links between the nations could be cut if the United States resists paying the tax.

Cuba "reserves the right to adopt the measures it deems necessary, including the total cutting of direct and indirect phone communications between Cuba and the United States," said the announcement in Granma, the government organ. The paper said the 10 percent phone tax would remain in place "until the complete return, with corresponding interest, of the Cuban funds illegally frozen in the United States."

Terror victims who have sued or are suing foreign state sponsors of terrorism include the parents of children killed in terrorist attacks in Israel, as well as journalist Terry Anderson and other Americans held hostage in Lebanon.

Victims suing under the statute have been awarded more than $250 million in judgments against Iran and Cuba. Neither country defended itself in U.S. courts, and the judges found evidence those governments were behind the various attacks.

Theoretically, the victims who won damages could have been paid from those nations' assets frozen by the U.S. government. But until now, payment was blocked by the Clinton administration, fearing diplomatic and security repercussions.

The U.S. government has nearly $400 million in accounts frozen since the Iranian revolution, 20 years ago. Because the $400 million is tied up in litigation in The Hague, the U.S. government has worked out a deal to pay the victims of Iranian terrorism from U.S. Treasury accounts, and then seek repayment from the Iranian government after the legal tangle in The Hague is resolved.

Victims of Cuban terrorism can be paid outright from frozen Cuban government accounts in U.S. banks, which hold some $150 million.

While the new bill provides for the immediate payment only to victims who already have judgments, the families of those killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103 have lawsuits pending against Libya, and American citizens taken hostage during the Persian Gulf war have lawsuits pending against Iraq.

But justice, not money, is the issue that drives Mr. Basulto.

"I hope that this law deters other nations considering terrorism," he said. "It hurts Fidel a little bit in his pocketbook, but we will not rest until those responsible are brought to justice." This story is based in part on wire service reports.


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