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Florida Court Opens Trial on Shootdown of Exiled Cuban Planes - 2003-02-26

A trial has begun in south Florida that aims to hold Cuban President Fidel Castro accountable for the 1996 shootdown of unarmed civilian planes over the Florida Straits.

It has been seven years since Cuban MIG fighter jets shot down two small planes operated by the Miami-based Cuban exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, killing four people.

Wednesday, appearing in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Brothers to the Rescue leader Jose Basulto said the incident continues to haunt him and has been a source of great personal suffering. Mr. Basulto spoke with reporters after testifying in court.

"Very emotional. It was a rehashing of what happened that day [of the shootdown]. This had to do with my own feelings, and I think they came out," he said.

Mr. Basulto is seeking a multi-million dollar award against Cuban President Fidel Castro, who has admitted to ordering the shootdown in the interests of Cuba's national defense.

Acting on Mr. Basulto's behalf is the U.S. legal advocacy group, Judicial Watch. The organization's chairman, Larry Klayman, says the goal of the lawsuit is twofold. "Our intent is not just to get justice for Mr. Basulto, but to punish the Cuban government and Fidel Castro, who is a master terrorist. Castro and Cuba are not immune from the U.S. legal system because they are on the State Department's terrorist watchlist. And under our law, private citizens can proceed against terrorist nations and against terrorists," he said.

No one representing the Cuban government has appeared to contest the lawsuit. But for years, Cuba accused Brothers to the Rescue of violating its airspace while searching the Florida Straits for rafters fleeing the island.

Relatives of those killed in the shootdown incident won a separate lawsuit against Cuba and collected compensation from Cuban assets frozen in the United States.