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By Alfonso Chardy
In the first such case since the federal government began stripping Nazi-era war criminals and collaborators of U.S. citizenship more than 20 years ago, a Cuban American in Miami faces ``denaturalization'' for allegedly torturing political prisoners at a psychiatric hospital in Havana decades ago.
The case against Eriberto Mederos, 78, is also significant because it's one of the rare times the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has resorted to criminal proceedings to revoke a citizenship -- and could mean a 10-year prison sentence for the former orderly on charges he lied on his citizenship application. In prior denaturalization cases, including those involving Nazi suspects, the Justice Department has used civil or administrative proceedings.
``Bringing criminal charges against somebody in a denaturalization process is not unheard of,'' said Eyleen Schmidt, an INS spokeswoman in Washington. ``[But] it's not a standard thing. Not everybody who gets denaturalized has these criminal charges. It might be handled administratively. But it really is case-specific, depending on the severity of what we caught them lying about.''
Ira Kurzban, a prominent Miami attorney and national expert on immigration law, said he was surprised the INS had filed criminal charges in the Mederos case.
``It's an extraordinary case for that reason alone,'' Kurzban said.
A Herald review last year found that dozens of foreign nationals accused of human rights atrocities -- including torture and murder -- in their homelands have been living quietly in the United States, many in South Florida.
Some, including Mederos, arrived legally. Others entered through the covert assistance of U.S. intelligence officials. Still others arrived with the tacit approval of the U.S. government, carrying tourist visas issued by unwitting American consuls.
They include members of an elite, CIA-trained counterintelligence military unit in Honduras that evolved into a veritable death squad and the suspected killer of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1980.
Mederos is the first to be prosecuted for his alleged political crimes. He is accused of administering electroshock treatment as torture to foes of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the 1960s and 1970s. For South Florida's Cuban exile community, the case brings to the forefront the alleged atrocities of the Castro regime and its treatment of political prisoners.
``Bringing Mederos to trial is an act of justice I've been waiting for for more than 30 years,'' said Jorge Alejandro Ferrer, 55, a former Cuban political prisoner who says Mederos gave him repeated electroshock treatment. ``I feel like a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp able to see my guard and torturer on trial.''
Yet, federal prosecutors face a difficult task: They have charged Mederos with lying about the alleged torture and not revealing he was a Communist Party member. It may be difficult to prove that he was not forced to join the Communist Party and that he administered electroshock treatment as torture, rather than as a medical procedure.
Mederos has repeatedly claimed he was only administering medical treatments.
At the trial, now tentatively scheduled for July 15, federal prosecutors are expected to rely on the testimony of more than 10 former Cuban political prisoners who accuse Mederos of torturing them.
In an interview last week at his home in southwestern Miami-Dade County, Ferrer -- an unemployed former beverage salesman -- remembered receiving repeated electroshock sessions -- without anesthesia and on the wet floor of a cell. He was jailed for attempting to leave the island illegally and not showing interest in joining or supporting pro-Castro programs and Communist Party activities.
Ferrer said inmates who underwent the treatment were lined up on the floor and then shocked without warning.
``They convulsed in their own body wastes and no one cleaned the floor for the next group,'' Ferrer said. ``The place was so horrible that I felt like I had entered hell and that soon I was to meet the devil who turned out to be Mederos.''
Ferrer said Mederos had no doctors or other medical professionals nearby when he administered the treatment. Instead, Ferrer said, Mederos' assistants were other hospital inmates.
Once, Ferrer said, he asked Mederos why he was subjecting him to electroshock treatment and that Mederos replied: ``Because you are a counterrevolutionary. I can kill you and nothing will happen to me.''
Other witnesses have asked the U.S. attorney's office in Miami to urge U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold to advance the trial date because some of the victims are elderly and frail. One of the most well-known victims, Eugenio de Sosa Chabau, 85, died of cancer Jan. 1.
De Sosa Chabau, a classmate of John F. Kennedy in the 1930s at the exclusive Choate prep school in Connecticut, was one of more than 20 cases featured in the 1991 book The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba, which first brought to light the Mederos case. The book was published by two human rights organizations.
A year later, the case received widespread media attention when Mederos was discovered living in Hialeah. In interviews with The Herald in 1992, he acknowledged using electroshock but described it as a medical procedure ordered by doctors.
And yet, despite the publicity, federal authorities at the time took no action against Mederos, even when he applied for, and ultimately obtained, U.S. citizenship in 1993. INS officials say they granted Mederos U.S. citizenship because they could not corroborate the torture allegations.
After arriving in the United States in the 1980s, Mederos lived quietly in Miami-Dade County working in the nursing home industry. Even after 1992, when he was discovered in Hialeah, Mederos continued to work with elderly and ill patients.
He was arrested in September, freed on bond and ordered to stay on electronically-monitored house arrest.
He has repeatedly declined interviews, including a request Thursday.
The INS reopened the Mederos file in 2000 when the agency began a new program designed to identify, detain, prosecute and deport foreign-born officials suspected of having tortured dissidents in their home countries.
A federal agent involved in the program picked the case at random and his supervisors endorsed the investigation.
The U.S. attorney's office took the case to a grand jury after Richard Krieger, a Boynton Beach-based human rights activist, and Miami's two Cuban-American Republican representatives in Congress -- Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart -- convinced Attorney General John Ashcroft to prosecute the case.
Mederos was arrested Sept. 4, the day the grand jury charged him with one count of illegally obtaining citizenship.
``This case established what I hope will be a legal precedent for bringing any torturer or war criminal to trial who has become a U.S. citizen, based on the fact that they have to have lied on their citizenship application form,'' Krieger said. ``Hopefully, the public outcry that has come from Miami on the Mederos case will carry over to incite Congress to pass the Anti-Atrocity Act and give us the power to exclude and deport any and all perpetrators of torture, extrajudicial killings and war crimes.''
Mederos' attorney, David Rothman, did not return calls to his office. But he has told Judge Gold that he has a tough task ahead in Cuba in gathering evidence favorable to his client.
``The defense has to conduct a thorough investigation of what we believe to be documentation of much of what Mr. Mederos was doing in Cuba, as he worked in a psychiatric hospital for a number of years,'' Rothman said at the Nov. 26 case status conference where he indicated he would need time to research the case in Cuba. ``The information we are looking for would be the explanation of other legitimate activities Mr. Mederos was involved in.''
While Rothman did not identify the witnesses he might interview, other attorneys said he likely would look for Mederos' former supervisors and co-workers.
Perhaps the most significant defense witness might be Dr. Eduardo Bernab Ordaz, director of the Havana Psychiatric Hospital -- where Mederos worked from 1945 to 1980.
In prior published reports, Ordaz has not denied holding political prisoners at the hospital that is widely known in Cuba as Mazorra.
But Ordaz has said all inmates were confined for legitimate reasons.
Hospital officials also have acknowledged using electroshock but portrayed the practice as standard treatment for mental disorders.
Whether Mederos administered electroshock under internationally accepted medical guidelines may be the key to determining whether he is lying.
According to the medical guidelines in place in the 1970s and 1980s, electroshock treatment -- known in medical circles as electroconvulsive therapy -- was to be performed in a hospital setting with the patient under anesthesia and his vital signs closely monitored by medical professionals.
Ferrer and other former inmates say they were never treated like patients in a hospital.
``There was no comfortable hospital bed where they gave us the electroshock,'' Ferrer said. ``It was just the cold, wet floor.''